The sun is shining but my thoughts are dark today. It might have been the Sunday drive we took to the Veteran’s cemetery. Who goes for a Sunday drive to a grave yard? Yet, I’ve always found cemeteries interesting. The first time I went to Europe I lost my passport wandering in a cemetery outside Exincourt, a little town in the Alsace-Lorraine region of France. The cemetery was on the quiet outskirts of the village, as French cemeteries often are, and full of granite tombs and statuary. These kinds of resting places are called “monumental” cemeteries, this as opposed to our American “lawn” cemeteries.
At the VA cemetery my eyes scanned row upon row of the same simple, white headstones (government issued). I thought about the difference between soldier grave sites and civilian cemeteries.
Civilian cemeteries are cities of the dead, and like cities of the living, they’re filled with all kinds of colorful characters. You can see this easily just reading through some of the epitaphs on the headstones: “I told you I was sick,” and “I was hoping for a pyramid.” A gay veteran buried in a civilian cemetery had engraved on his headstone: “A Gay Vietnam Veteran, When I was in the military they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.”
Names, birth/death dates, and rank are basically the only thing carved on military tablets. I stood in front of a “Stephen” and a “Rita,” both corporals at one time. Neither appeared to have died in combat. I wondered what made them join the military. I don’t think many young people dream of becoming killing machines. Rather, they see being in the military as serving their country, or a way to get training in a specialized field without the expense and headache of college. Perhaps they like all the benefits military service offers, i.e. free funeral, burial, and memorial.
Though people buried in the VA cemetery must have some military experience, it’s a mistake to think this time period of their life defined who they later became.
I know a man and his wife who plan to be cremated and have their ashes scattered over the Memory Garden at the VA cemetery. And though it’s true the man served during the Viet Nam War era, after that his life took an entirely different path, marrying, moving to the West, and experiencing a long career in education.
Still, those early years of our lives and what happens to us does seem to have some lasting significance. My son is a software developer, but every year or so he gathers together with a few of his Marine buddies to remember those crazy times at Camp Pendleton or stationed in Hawaii—just like college friends do when they look back on dorm life. I don’t know if my son’s even considered where he wants to be buried yet. People younger than fifty rarely do. No one wants to be accused of having a morbid fascination. But he has the option of a veteran’s burial—an option, by the way, I don’t have.
Memorial Day is almost upon us and with it the VA cemetery, like cemeteries everywhere, will be covered with bouquets of irises, lilacs, and peonies. The flowers are beautiful and smell good, but I prefer somber, sedate lawns of green grass and hushed breezes, the cemetery—sans holiday. As we slowly drove out of the VA cemetery on Sunday, I thought of an old verse I saw once engraved on a colonial-era headstone in New England. Apparently, this poem was a popular Puritan epitaph, the words carved right under the skeletons and imps decorating the top of tombstones:
“Remember me as you pass by,
As you are now, so once was I,
As I am now, so you must be,
Prepare for death and follow me.”
Image credit: Veteran’s Cemetery