Wednesday, December 8, 2010


Arlington National Cemetery is dedicated as the final resting place for our fallen heroes. Sometimes the definition of who is a fallen hero is questionable, but all in all the great bulk of graves are occupied by Americans who have in some sense been involved in government activities. Here I include military personnel, both north and south from the civil war and all the other wars since. John F. Kennedy, our late president is buried there along with his brother Robert and many other notables. His grave site is lit by a perpetual flame and all the grave sites are kept neat and tidy by the United States Government. And that is how it should be for our national heroes and soldiers who have given their lives in the cause of war.

My brother died when he was just 6 months old and I was in first or second grade. At that tender age death was a strange and frightening event. Wakes were held at the home and the coffin with the body was there for the two or three days of mourning. Each evening and into the night neighbors came and paid there respects. The neighborhood fathers stayed awake each night for the required vigil; the undertaker providing the necessary chairs. We kids climbed the stairs in the old house and went to bed. There were no lights except the one lonely bare bulb in the downstairs area which served as the kitchen, dining room and living room. The bathroom was also downstairs but none of us woke at night to use it. The coffin was set upon a stand and suitably draped with linen; candelabras were placed at the head of the coffin and the candles lit each evening. On the day of the funeral, we all lined up and kissed the body; strangely cold and waxy. The coffin lid was then lowered and the coffin taken to the hearse. The funeral procession consisted of just two cars, the hearse and one other. The coffin was set on the laps of two of my sisters and I sat between them.

The grave was open and the priest said something, I do not remember much about the ceremony or the cemetery. It was a singular moment and remains fixed in my mind, even though I do not remember all of the events.

In later years, I was to discover that the grave site was tucked away in a remote corner of the cemetery and had been donated by the church. A sort of paupers’ grave, not readily saleable, set under a large oak tree and carved out among the gnarly roots and never marked in any way. I always wanted to buy a nice grave site and have him buried there. When my parents died, an adjoining grave site was available and living far way from the town where the cemetery was I asked one of my sisters to talk to the church officials and ask to have the body exhumed and reburied in a more fitting grave next to my parents. I told her to emphasis that I was willing to pay for the effort.

However, she reported that the priest who managed the cemetery was adamant that it was not worth the money to exhume a body that was buried so long.

Like all of us I have regrets and one of them is that I did not pursue the issue further. Maybe the priest did not want to be bothered with the effort; maybe he did not understand souls; maybe he did not understand the idea of burial sites as special; or maybe there never was a burial site.

I do not begrudge the people whose final resting place is Arlington. As a veteran I am entitled to be buried there, space permitting. A National cemetery is now available for veterans in Florida. Everyone should have a decent burial plot or some final remembrance of their lives. And so should have my brother.

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