Memorial Day weekend, with its cookouts, ball games and summer sales, is almost upon us. While there is nothing wrong with these things, Memorial Day calls for a deeper reflection on the sacrifices many Americans have made to preserve our freedom. For that kind of experience, I recommend a visit to one of America’s national cemeteries.
For me, just being in a national cemetery brings on a wave of emotion, even if I don’t know a single person buried there. I don’t think I’m alone when I say I find the sight of those rows of headstones a moving experience. For a long time, I couldn’t really explain why.
America is home to a diverse collection of about 150 of these national shrines, with no two alike. Every national cemetery is interesting, but some are spectacular. Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego is located on Point Loma, with incredible views of the San Diego Bay on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other. San Francisco National Cemetery overlooks the city and the Golden Gate Bridge. The National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii is situated in the bowl of an extinct volcano high above Honolulu. Arlington is America’s premier national cemetery, but the East Coast is also home to many historic Civil War-era national cemeteries associated with that war’s famous battles. In the middle of the country are many more, including the vast Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis and Fort Snelling National Cemetery in Minneapolis.
America came by her national cemeteries honestly, as a result of the appalling number of deaths the country suffered during the Civil War. Before that conflict, the federal government was under no obligation to bury with dignity those who fought and died in her defense, but the war changed that. In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed legislation into law that established the first 14 national cemeteries meant for the burial of Union soldiers.
After the war ended, the federal government inaugurated a massive reburial program. Military burial details gathered the dead from battlefields across the South, disinterring the fallen from shallow and hastily dug graves. Ultimately, more than 300,000 Union soldiers were reinterred in 74 new national cemeteries, and Congress officially established the national cemetery system. As time passed and the hard feelings between the North and South eased, Confederate veterans were also allowed burial in the national cemeteries.
The design of national cemeteries from the beginning was unlike any burial ground at the time. Consider the appearance of a typical mid-19th Century cemetery, especially in an urban area. The grave markers are of every size and shape, the most grandiose of which commemorate the lives of the wealthiest or most important individuals or families of the time; generally, the wealthier the person, the more elaborate the monument.
From that era came the design that survives to this day, a cemetery with rows and rows of identical headstones — simple, made of durable stone with the slightly rounded top. The headstones are set in straight lines. The height as well as the distance between each stone is uniform, evoking military precision, like rows of soldiers in formation.
One of the most unique aspects of the national cemeteries is the equality shown to the dead. Generals are buried next to privates; rich next to poor; black next to white, as if to convey that the honor given a person is not determined by wealth, station, rank or race, but by one’s willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice for their country.
When I visit a national cemetery, I like to stroll along the rows and read the names, dates and military information on the headstones. As a student of history, I enjoy making human connections to the wars, campaigns and battles I’ve read about. Every headstone tells a story, and I find it fascinating that, here before me, are the remains of a person who once lived that history.
But I find the most powerful message is in the wider view. If I imagine panning back from the individual headstones so that I can see the rows upon rows stretching into the distance, it hits me like bolt of lightning — that this is the price of freedom. America would not exist were it not for the willingness of her citizens to give their lives in defense of our freedoms. And that explains the lump in my throat whenever I visit a national cemetery.
Across the nation May 30, thousands of Americans will witness parades, concerts, speeches, rifle salutes and other patriotic displays at local Memorial Day ceremonies, including many in our national cemeteries. That’s a wonderful thing. But I would encourage you not to restrict your Memorial Day reflections to that one special occasion. You can experience the true spirit of patriotism — devotion to duty, honor, service and sacrifice — any time, because at America’s national cemeteries, every day is Memorial Day.