“The muffled drum’s sad roll has beat
The soldier’s last tattoo;
No more on life’s parade shall meet
That brave and fallen few.
On Fame’s eternal camping-ground
Their silent tents are spread,
And Glory guards, with solemn round,
The bivouac of the dead.”
From The Bivouac of the Dead by Theodore O’Hara
I work down the street from Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery. It sits on a cliff overlooking both San Diego Bay and the Pacific Ocean and you can’t be just anyone and be buried there. Veterans can’t even be buried there anymore and to accommodate the demand crypts are being built so if not their bodies at least warriors’ ashes can rest on hallowed ground.
The urns are stacked in outdoor crypts as many as ten high and twenty or thirty wide and they line the street that surrounds the grass where those who got in on the ground floor are buried. Loved ones place small bouquets of flowers in the gravel at the bottom of the crypts, and afterwards they sit in lawn chairs or lean upon their cars and sometimes they cry. It is hard to watch a man cry at any time, harder when he grieves for a friend sixty-years dead. Eventually their wives take the keys and drive them away and only the flowers are left. The flowers last a long time in San Diego because of the mild weather and dead flowers are collected before they lose their beauty and become symbols of death instead of memorials of love. That seems to me what a cemetery is is a memorial to love, for what exemplifies love more than sacrifice?
Because the space is limited, wives are often buried with their husbands. Rather than erect a separate headstone which would soon make the paths between the graves impassable, the wives’ names are etched on the backs of their husbands’ headstones. “Mary His Wife.” “Matilda His Wife.” Married in life, together even in death. One of the most moving areas in the Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii is the portion on the far end with the names of those who survived the attack but who wished to be buried at sea with their ‘mates. Married in life, together in death.
The orderly rows of graves stretch for miles and the grass and trees and shrubs are as perfect as if every night someone comes and trims and cleans so that the morning comes and there’s not a blade out of place and it is beautiful and sad and wonderful.
Some of the dead were drafted, some served voluntarily, but all came and did the best they could. Today we do well to honor those who have gone before and upon whose shoulders we rest, safe, prosperous, and free.