Tuesday, July 16, 2013

A Somber Reflection

I have a confession.  I am obsessed with cemeteries... the older the better.  I'm not sure when this started, but I can't remember a time when I wasn't absolutely fascinated by wandering through a cemetery, examining the headstones and wondering about the statuary people chose, especially during the Victorian age, which seemed to be the golden age of funerary monuments.  I would peek into family mausoleums, wondering what they looked like inside.  One day I decided to explore a very old part of the cemetery where my great-grandparents (and now my grandparents and mother, too) are buried and got myself stuck in a hill of mud.  I wondered if I was ever going to get myself out!

When I was in high school, we lived for a time in a duplex across the street from a different cemetery, one of those that looks like a park because the headstones are all flat on the ground.  From time to time, my mom and I would take a walk through the cemetery since there was really nowhere else for us to walk.  It was on these walks that I learned my mom was terrified of being buried alive.  She told me that when the time came, she wanted to be cremated.  I had no idea that just a few short years later, I would be making sure that her wish was followed.

This past weekend, as part of our family vacation, we visited the Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville, Kentucky.  Part of the draw was that Colonel Harland Sanders, the founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken, is buried there.  The other reason was that part of Cave Hill is a national cemetery, established during the Civil War.  As we drove through the winding lanes, I was struck by many of the headstones, both old (early- to mid-nineteenth century) and modern.  They truly are works of art.  Though it felt strange at first, I had my daughter take some pictures of the sculptures.  Here's one....
I was truly struck, though, by the thousands upon thousands of small white markers in the National Cemetery.  Though I've been to Arlington, it was a short visit on an 8th grade class trip I chaperoned my first year of teaching.  It's a blur.  This, though small in comparison to Arlington or other National Cemeteries, has haunted me for days.
I looked at the headstones, read the names, the regiments, the dates of death, and I couldn't help but wonder about these men... boys really, when it comes down to it, and the circumstances of their deaths.  Were they wounded in a battle, only to die, days later of infection or loss of blood?  Did they die of dysentery before ever stepping foot on a battlefield?  I thought about the small, rectangular markers that signified an unknown soldier.  How long did his mother, wife, girlfriend wait for him to come home, only to wait in vain?  These men, known only by a number etched into the top of the marker - who grieved for them?

It didn't take me long to think of the soldiers serving today and those who have been killed in the past 12 years in Iraq and Afghanistan, who gave what Abraham Lincoln called in the Gettysburg Address "the last full measure of devotion."  While I may not agree with the politics that got us into two simultaneous wars in the middle east, I can still hope for more soldiers to return whole and living home to their families.  Unfortunately for many, that is a hope unfulfilled.