Arlington in Virginia, next to the Pentagon, at the end of the Mall by the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, rebel General Robert E. Lee’s confiscated estate turned National Cemetery for those who have served.
You have probably seen the service in a movie. The family seated graveside, the reading, volley fire, taps played on a bugle and the flag, reverentially folded and handed to a surviving relative. It is really like that – well not quite….
Wednesday I attended a good friend’s service. Everything I described above happened. There was even a “Sister of Arlington” in attendance with a member of the service the deceased served in – just to make sure no one goes alone. I learned the flag is folded in a triangle to represent a Revolutionary War hat and that “the number of burials a week depends on whether the country is at war or not” (Visitor Center Information Panel). But I also discovered a sad side that has been exercised in the press of late…
It is hard to be reverential and quiet when a plane hurtles overhead every three minutes from Ronald Reagan airport, the sounds of volley fire from OTHER funerals rather reminds one the it is not just WWII veterans dying off that is keeping Arlington busy these days but also the present conflict in Iraq……and busy and well spaced though the funerals try to be in terms of timing and proximity in the cemetery – the roar of the backhoes and dump trucks digging the graves, dropping in liners and flipping the coffis into the ground is rather disturbing for those trying to come to terms with the loss of a loved one. I’m not suggesting that holes get dug by hand – but perhaps at night before or at a less obtrusive moment for the relatives.
However the REAL problem is trying to handle in a fair and respectful way the tourists. Not those visiting the graves of loved ones – but the people who want to see JFK’s grave or the tomb of the Unknown Soldier or to wander round and be respectful of those who served. That is the real problem – what constitutes respect?
It is certainly NOT:
- Raggy Shorts and T-Shirts
- Video cameras and cameras jammed in people’s faces
- Running and whooping
- The kid playing Wiffle ball at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (really!)
- Eating and drinking graveside
Certainly the serving members of the armed forces buried at Arlington seved so we could enjoy freedom – but they deserve better in return. Most of us were silently willing the sentry at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to unsling his weapon and shoot the wiffle bat out of the hands of the kid – while wondering where his parents were?
If a museum can ask you to check coats and bags, not allow you to take photographs of their exhibits and require you to dress to a tolerable standard before admitting you – then it seems that the Arlington Visitors’ Center could do the same and MORE. A museum is trying to preserve their artifacts from being touched, damaged by spills and aggressive flash light that damages objects. Arlington should require that the same standard is set before admission to the Cemetery – and a short few words of orientation about respectful behaviour would not go amiss either.
When the wind is in the wrong direction the planes will – unfortunately – roar overhead. But so much more could be done to reduce the roar of the backhoes and the uneducated intrusion of visitors who simply don’t know better because no one has explained it to them.
Reducing the casualties of the present war in Iraq however – is beyond the control of the staff at Arlington.
The irony of illustrating this with a picture is not lost on me. I used a generic one from the Arlington Web Site.