"Welcome to Arlington National Cemetery, our nation's most sacred shrine. Please conduct yourselves with dignity and respect at all times."
Meditating on the upcoming Memorial Day, I entered the cemetery just as a legion of eighth graders invaded as well. Kids that age conducting themselves with dignity and respect at all times? That seemed as likely as having all 4-year-olds show perseverance throughout the marshmallow test: Eat one now, or sit for 20 minutes and you'll get two. But, surprise! The eighth graders walked along quietly, even reverently.
The rows of white tombstones marching up the hills do that to you.
One of the main tourist attractions, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, announces in engraved words, "Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God." Two hundred persons, including a platoon of blue-shirted elementary schoolers, sat and stood quietly as a soldier from the 3rd Infantry marched back and forth by the tomb, 21 steps each time, symbolizing a 21-gun salute.
At the other main attraction, the grave of John F. Kennedy with its "eternal flame," the words from Kennedy's inaugural address leap out from a curved wall: "In the long history of the world only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom. In the hour of maximum danger I do not shrink from this responsibility. I welcome it."
And further up, past flowering dogwoods and azaleas, stands Arlington House, once the home of Robert E. Lee. Union soldiers occupied it in 1861 and started burying their dead right by it in 1864, deliberately making it a place that the Lees could never again make their home. Lee was ambivalent about slavery, calling it a "moral and political evil" but believing its future would depend on "Merciful Providence"—and God did decide.
Now, the scent of white and purple lilacs wafts over the graves in what was Mary Lee's garden. Today, pink heart-shaped flowers—bleeding hearts—bloom by one of the first graves, that of Frederick Howard, 2nd New York Artillery, Aug. 16, 1864. Those standing nearby have a magnificent view of the Washington Monument and the Capitol—both half-finished in 1864—and the Lincoln Memorial.
The gravesite inscriptions tell a big story of heroism, of Americans over the centuries willing to pay any price, bear any burden, and meet any hardship to assure the survival and the success of liberty. But the little stories are also important. The succession of names on one row of white tombstones—Weincek, Fredette, O'Boyle, Tagudino, McBroom—shows the melting-pot genius of America.
Most of the tombstones display a cross or a Star of David, showing how generations of aging Americans prepared to meet their Maker by putting their trust in Christ or in God's covenant with Abraham. Tombstones in newer sections of the cemetery can show any one of at least 48 symbols, ranging from Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim, to Soka Gakkai, Konkokyo, and the Church of World Messianity. Atheist and Wiccan engravings are hard to find but also present.
The location of the graves tells one further story. One section, Chaplains Hill, includes monuments to Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish military chaplains. Section 21 is the nurses' section. Another part is full of the remains of rear admirals. One grave a little removed from others is that of Medgar Evers of Mississippi, the World War II veteran and civil rights fighter assassinated on June 12, 1963. Ten rocks sit atop the cross-engraved tombstone.
The rocks themselves are a story of America. Under one magnolia tree sits the grave of Marvin Ollendorff, an ordinary Jewish soldier from New York. Several small "stones of remembrance" sit atop his tombstone, and some date the origin of the Jewish custom—leave an ebenezer, a stone of help—to the prophet Samuel. But the next tombstone is the cross-engraved one of Frank Spear of Kansas, and it also has several rocks on top. Americans borrow customs from each other the way neighbors borrow cups of sugar.
I saw the eighth graders leaving the cemetery. They were still paying attention, honoring the dedicated dead. Rows of white tombstones do that to you.