One change from our childhood to the present day is a sad one: the constant demand for more space at our nation’s most sacred cemetery. BoomerCafé co-founder and publisher David Henderson has long ties to this hallowed ground, and just visited again because the Holidays Bring Remembrance.
It was the placing of so many live evergreen holiday wreaths with red ribbons that got me thinking yet again about Arlington National Cemetery. Word had gotten around the Washington, DC, area, and 15,000 volunteers showed up one weekend in early December to help place the wreaths that had arrived in twenty semi-tractor trailer trucks from Maine. 100,000 wreaths.
My wife and I had driven by, and the sight of so many simple symbols of dignified remembrance … well, it was powerful.
Owner Morrill Worcester of Worcester Wreath Company in Harrington, Maine, started the tradition with 5,000 wreaths twenty years ago, and it caught on. This year though, there have never been so many wreaths at Arlington. Rows upon rows.
The sight of the wreaths brought me back to the Cemetery for a visit early on a cold December morning. Cecil Brathwaite, my friend and a respected photographer in Washington, accompanied me.
Arlington National Cemetery always seemed to have a connection in my life, growing up just a few miles away. My mother, sister, and I would watch 4th of July fireworks in Washington by spreading out a blanket on the cemetery hill. I found my love for bicycling on the twisting roads among the sea of headstones and ancient trees.
As the world has changed over these many decades since I was a kid, the Cemetery has always remained sacred ground. Respectfully quiet. Voices always in whisper. Except during funerals. Then, the sounds of horse hooves, a firing party, calls to attention, a bugler. Followed by quiet again, or the flickering of the perpetual torch at President Kennedy’s grave site, or the sharp click of heels by a sentry at the Tomb of the Unknowns. Now, again, there are Maine holiday wreaths there, too.
What really struck me this visit was the number of military funerals. Cecil and I saw several, and he commented, quietly, that he would never photograph such a solemn and private moment of honoring the dead. It would be intrusive, it would not be right.
Arlington National Cemetery is much larger today than when I was a kid. It is sprawling southward towards the Pentagon. The need for more burial areas from more wars. More military honor guards, the constant sound of caissons, firing parties, Taps. More wreaths.