My host has the custom of taking his family to a cemetery on Memorial Day, so we paid a visit to the National Memorial Cemetery of Arizona, which is run by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Highway traffic comes to a crawl a mile or so out, and ahead one discerns a sharp row of flags lining the highway. The corner is turned, and the cemetery comes into view: a sea of individual flags, one at each grave, whipping in the strong wind. From a distance it’s a blur of pink. There is no grass but reddish gravel, and the graves are marked with uniform, bronze, rectangular stones. Only the flags rise above ground—with here and there some brave flowers, placed for the day.
Although the stones are uniform, they have certain distinctives: many but not all with crosses, some with symbols of other faiths; some with two names, the soldier and a spouse or child; an indication of the service: navy, say, or army; Korea or World War II.
Where we happened to stop, all the graves were of people who had died just about ten years ago, although their time of service varied.
My host quoted a line from T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”: “I had not thought death had undone so many.” Eliot himself was quoting Dante’s Inferno, where Dante sees the many dead, so many. There are, of course, more people on the other side of death than on this side, but that is a perspective that takes work to achieve. And an ordinary cemetery, with a variety of stones and periods, with hills and corners, with toppling old monuments and shiny new ones—such a cemetery does not convey the immensity of death as does a military one. Looking at thousands (it must have been) of identical flags, the simple geometry, the uniform spacing, the gravel, extending beyond one’s vision—and thinking, too, that all these people were united in the same purpose (the military): here was a transcendence of individuality that honored the individuals. They had their names; they had played their part; they had put precisely themselves at the service of something larger than themselves.
And so it is with the church. It is not “militaristic” to recognize that, in the church, we are lifted up into a cause that is greater than ourselves; that we are to give our own lives, it may be, that others may live; that we find our selves when we give up our selves. In the traditional burial office there was no place for a eulogy, but only for the name of the departed. His or her identity was taken up into Christ.
There we place our death: there we place our life: there, where uncounted and unimaginable legions have preceded us.
Out & About. Coming soon: the next “Good Books & Good Talk” seminar, on The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery: Sunday, June 9, at Church of the Incarnation in Dallas, from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Anyone who reads it is welcome.
Monday, June 10, at the Ginger Man pub in Dallas, Dr. Elisabeth Kincaid and I will talk about justice, crime, and the death penalty. Elisabeth is the new ethics professor at Nashotah House. I am looking forward to our public conversation. We begin at 7 p.m., but those who wish can arrive early and order.
Saturday and Sunday, June 15-16, I am to preach at All Souls’ Church in Oklahoma City: Saturday at 5:30 p.m., Sunday at 8 and 10 a.m.