My uncles tease (more than half seriously) that my grandmother can’t drive past a cemetery without getting the urge to stop and look for ancestors. That’s a trait that she’s passed on to me. As we take road trips around the country, Mike and I spend a surprising amount of time in cemeteries, looking for graves — not only of ancestors, but also of figures in church history and U.S. history. All the cemeteries we visit are solemn and hallowed places, but few sites can compare to the acres and acres of orderly rows of veterans buried in America’s national cemeteries. It seems appropriate to reflect on some of these this Veterans Day (Armistice Day and Remembrance Day, outside of the U.S.)
Although often photographed, I felt that the images I’ve seen fail to convey the sense of scale of these monuments when experienced in real life. (My own photos here hardly do any justice.) Even more meaningful for me, was moving beyond the experience of the whole and reflecting on the fact that each grave remembers an individual who gave service. In my own family, both my grandfathers are veterans of World War II, and I have ancestors who served in the World War I, the U.S. Civil War, the War of 1812, the American Revolutionary War, and the French and Indian War (the North American theater of the Seven Year’s War). I therefore feel a familial connection to these sacred grounds.
Beyond personal connections, our visits have made it clear to me that when you pay attention to the individual markers, they are not identical stones repeated infinitely — rather, each one is individual and each represents an individual. Up close, you immediately observe that each headstone includes an “emblem of belief.” In the oldest parts of the cemeteries, these are nearly all simple latin crosses (indicating that the individual was any kind of Christian), although right from the start there are a smattering of stars of David mixed in (representing Judaism), along with stones left blank (presumably for non-adherents).
Of course, as Mormons well know, not all Christians use the latin cross to symbolize their faith. And as you move from older sections of national cemeteries to newer sections, it becomes clear that America’s servicemen — along with increasing numbers of servicewomen — are increasingly diverse in their beliefs. And it’s also clear that the country is increasingly tolerant of that diversity.
As the sections move forward, distinctive emblems appear for mainline Protestant denominations, as well as for Orthodox denominations.
Among Latter Day Saints, there are emblems for both the LDS Church and the Community of Christ.
But more and more in the newer sections, non-Christian faiths (and even beliefs without faith) are also represented.
In visiting these hallowed grounds, we were expected to feel impressed by a powerful monument to service, and we were not disappointed in that expectation. We also left impressed by a compelling monument to America’s pluralism and diversity. That was not expected, but it was nevertheless just as welcome.
Thanks again on this day to all who have given and who continue to give service.
Note: Mike and I took all of these photos either at Arlington or Ft. Leavenworth National Cemeteries. In addition to those listed above, the government approves a number of emblems of belief which we did not locate: Aaron Order Church, Native American Church of North America, Serbian Orthodoxy, Hinduism, Konko-Kyo faith, Sufism Reoriented, Tenrikyo church, Seicho-No-Ie, United Moravian Church, Eckankar, Christian & Missionary Alliance, Humanists, Izaumo Taishakyo Mission of Hawaii, and Sikhism.