Arlington National Cemetary: Being in the Memory Business

Master Gunnery Sergeant Insignia, USMC.

A colleague and friend of mine passed away from cancer in December of last year. Out of respect for his family in their time of grieving, I’ll just use his first name, James. As James achieved the rank of Master Gunnery Sergeant before retiring from the Marine Corps, he was therefore eligible for a burial with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. James was a kind and cheerful man, well-liked and well respected, so it wasn’t surprising that a sizable amount of his coworkers and friends attended to pay their respects. It took about a month for an opening in the Arlington National Cemetery (ANC) schedule for James’ internment. This may sound odd but that’s actually pretty quick these days– ANC performs many burial ceremonies a day and each one has its nuances … they must be conducted with a certain reverence and procedure that never deviates from custom. As such, every internment takes its share of time and they are hard to schedule quickly.

Funeral Cortege forming up
Marine Corps honor guard in back, formal pallbearers conduct the ritual of loading the coffin.

I am no stranger to funerals, and no stranger to military funerals. I have attended my share over the years, though not often at ANC. Being an enthusiast for historical and traditional subjects, yesterday’s funeral forced me into a melancholy, reflective mood.   The public so rarely sees what goes on inside the cemetery on a daily basis, it might be a good thing to remember it for a bit.

Arlington National Cemetary
The USMC Guard of Honor sets up in a field near the internment sight. Not seen, but present, were a trumpeter and a four man saluting team.  Out of respect for the family, I do not depict them in this post.

We were ushered into a waiting room at the administration building where the attendees gathered and the last minute arrivals showed up.  We had a long wait, roughly half an hour, so I watched the live feed of the changing of the guard on the wall screen.  A gentleman (pictured above, left of center) explained the details of the ceremony.  He repeatedly inserted the phrase “Family and Friends of the Deceased” in a titular fashion into his instructions, very respectfully.    Two Sergeant Majors were present from the office of the Commandant of the Marine Corps, as representatives.  I learned later that the sending of a representative of equal or greater rank to the deceased is the standard etiquette for funerals.   James’ widow was understandably withdrawn and grieving, and almost collapsed a couple of times from the shock of the grief, but many hands were there to support her.

caisson coffin
Marine Corps honor guard pallbearers remove the coffin from the caisson. All movements were very slow and measured, clearly practiced many times and well rehearsed.

I felt quite honored to be invited to walk in the procession behind the family, which was walking behind the caisson, the horse drawn cart that carries the coffin to the site. It was a bitingly cold day which increased the sensation of solemnity and melancholy, but it also made the day bright and the sound carried very far. I hate a funeral in a downpour… that is a miserable experience. For all the cold and wind, not a word of complaint, not a gesture or grimace conveying “let’s get this over with, I want to go inside” was detected on the large supporting staff among the honor guard sent from the Marine Corps. Every word, every gesture, every well-timed and endlessly rehearsed part of the ceremony was accomplished with a respect that was clear for anyone to see. As if the organization itself was saying “This was one of our own. We care. We owe him this– it must be done right”.

The actual internment was not rushed. The coffin was unloaded and reverently placed on a stand, and then the chaplain (a Navy lieutenant) said a few words of prayer. He finished, and the three volleys of four rifles were fired.. I noticed there were misfires in the second and third volleys, probably the temperature was a factor there. The flag was then removed from the coffin in a slow and measured ceremony I have observed many times– where the honor guard takes great care to fold the draping flag into a triangular shape for presentation. This was presented by the Master Sergeant from the Commandant’s office, although James’s widow was overcome with grief at that moment. At the phrase “Thanks of a grateful nation”, even I had a lump in my throat.

The ceremony completed, we dispersed to our vehicles and went back to work. I was, and am, impressed at these keepers of the dead and their deep rooted professionalism. Their care for their charges goes beyond a work ethic.. it’s another level of respect entirely, akin to worship, almost. This is what a sense of mission is all about. In Thomas Cahill’s “Sailing the Wine-Dark See: Why the Greeks Matter”, the author speculates as to how the fledgling Greek democracies of the West were usually successful in conflicts with numerically superior foes from autocratic empire regimes such as Persia. It wasn’t technological differences, it wasn’t even discipline and better tactics (usually). Cahill contends that the root cause was in how the ancient Greeks revered their dead. This conveys a sense of self to individual soldiers.. the feeling that “Society cares enough about me to honor my remains… therefore, my life matters.. my actions count in this world”.   Thousands of years later and half a world away, I see this respect and kindness for the fallen warrior is with us still. They are truly in the Memory Business at Arlington.. I doubt anyone can forget a properly conducted internment with full military honors. I hope and pray we don’t live in a society that ever forgets this reverence for our own fallen. It is inspiring.

Cherish the Living. Honor the Dead.

Rest in Peace, James. You’ve earned it.