Halsey Drive, Arlington National Cemetery, 2011
“On behalf of the President of the United States and a grateful nation….”
How many times have we heard those words? They’re part of the culture. But not until I attended a burial service at Arlington National Cemetery earlier this week did I have an appreciation of just how deeply they touch.
I’d never attended a burial at Arlington. I'd seen a wonderful National Geographic documentary about the burial detail there and the honor and seriousness they attach to their work. But until this week it had all been in the abstract for me. I knew people who were buried at Arlington. But I’d never been present for this last rite.
You don't have to have ever served in the military to know that they have their own ways of doing things. There's an official way to do everything, no matter how big or small or consequential or inconsequential. Everything is spelled out and rehearsed again and again, right down to the last detail.
It should be no surprise, therefore, that the military is as ritualized in handling death as it is in handling matters of the day-to-day life. Ritual holds troops together in times of adversity and provides assuring structure for grieving survivors and loved ones in times of death.
I arrived early at the cemetery and walked and took pictures among the headstones. I was humbled by the number of graves of people of my generation, including one West Virginian born the same day as me who served in Vietnam, Operation Desert Storm and in our most recent wars in the Middle East. How different our lives must have been.
At the appointed time family members and friends assembled at a reception center and were given a brief rundown of the day's schedule. We then drove along immaculately kept lanes to a clearing where the casket of the deceased was transferred from a hearse to a caisson drawn by four horses. During this brief interval, a dignified Navy band played off in the distance. An honor guard maintained watch. You don’t think such things will get to your heart, but they do.
On a cooler day, people attending the burial might have marched behind the caisson for the last half-mile or so to the grave site. Out of deference to the heat and the fact that many of the people in attendance were in their seventies and eighties, we were asked to instead drive behind the caisson and a column of more than eighty uniformed sailors, Navy officials and representatives of the ships the deceased officer had commanded. The drive was slow and solemn, the pace marked by the beat of drums and the footsteps of the sailors.
The graveside service was conducted by an Episcopal rector and a Navy chaplain, the former finding comfort in the ritual in the Book of Common Prayer and the latter in the Navy's burial texts. Marksmen fired volleys. The band played the Navy Hymn (“Eternal Father”). There wasn’t a dry eye on the lawn.
The two ministers' comments and prayers were economical in their brevity. Yet even in those carefully chosen words there was deep meaning and comfort. When, at the end of the service, the chaplain leaned over to convey the folded American flag to the eldest child of the deceased and uttered those familiar words, "On behalf of the president of the United States and a grateful nation...." it was as if the president himself had penned those words just that morning and sent them across the Potomac to be read. A final “Taps” was played in the distance.
We've heard these words before and will no doubt hear them many more times. But they will never have such meaning as when they are being spoken to us or about people we knew and loved.