Monday, May 31, 2010

Memorial Day--the National Cemetery System

Yesterday, I was overcome with a desire to pay my respects to those who have served in the Armed Forces in some sort of active way. I don't know how I came to learn of it, but I knew that there is a National Cemetery system, that Arlington isn't the only one. And so I decided to go and visit and see what I could see.

The National Cemetery nearest me is the Sacramento Valley National Cemetery--a very recent one, formally dedicated in 2007. It's about halfway between the Bay Area and Sacramento, a rather hot, flat area just off of highway 80 and across from a fruit orchard. And in the middle of seemingly nowhere, here's this National Cemetery.

The way they set up the entrance has basically a marble wall with gaps for cars to drive in. It felt like I was literally driving into a memorial, which I suppose I was.

I'm so glad I went. It was incredibly moving to me. I didn't take a lot of pictures because it felt disrespectful somehow. But I walked through and tried to take in some notion of each person I visited.

Each headstone or columbarium niche was marked with the person's name, what branch of the service they were in, what rank they held, what war (or wars) they were part of, years of birth and death, and then (often) a personal statement.

There was a small flag in front of every grave, as you can see here:

At least I hope you can see it.

Because the cemetery is so new, the columbaria are sparsely attended, so to speak. Only the facades with remains had the flags in front of them. Although there was also lots of empty lawn that will soon also have headstones, there was more of an impact in seeing all those empty niches that will eventually be filled.

What also hit me were seeing all of these stories that I didn't know in one place. The fact that veterans are not grouped by war meant that I saw "Vietnam" and then "World War II" and then "Korea" and then "Persian Gulf" all cheek by jowl. So many stories.

One thing I didn't know was that the spouse could also be recognized and buried in the National Cemetery. I don't know the rules on that. Some seemed to have their own plot; others (and I found this fascinating) were marked on the back of the headstone of the service member. I loved the one where the personal statement was "Hello It's Just Grandma." Says a story right there, doesn't it?

Although I knew it, it hadn't really sunk in that at the National Cemeteries you don't choose a plot; you are buried by date: the most recent next to the next recent, and so on. Maybe this will explain:

Date of interment for the far right was May 27; two to the left of that on May 26; etc. It made me think how inexorable death is, whether you die fighting or end up spending a long life after the war is over. Death goes marching on, tromping over the lawn, and we remember as best we can.

If you are looking for something meaningful to do this Memorial Day, I would recommend that you look up the National Cemetery closest to you and pay a visit. It gave me, at any rate, a sense of the broader picture of what we're talking about when we talk about Memorial Day. Maybe you will find it meaningful too.


it's margaret said...

There was a ministry we started in Oregon --burying the dead veterans for free.... with prayers and personal presence. You might be surprised how many get buried without any chaplain or personal presence at the grave at all.

Rose City Reader said...

Great essay and a great suggestion.

I used to live next to The Presidio in San Francisco. Every Memorial Day, we walked over to the National Cemetery there -- it was beautiful and very emotional.