Powerful Monuments to Service

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.

Bookmark Powerful Monuments to Service


  1. John this left a tear in my eye. Thank you for sharing this. My heart goes out to so many who have given so much–both those who gave their life and their families left behind. How meaningful to see so many faiths represented.

  2. What a wonderful and touching post. Thanks for sharing! It was very moving to see so many different faiths being represented and acknowledged. Wonderful post!

  3. One of my sisters is a family historian, and she, like my mother, can’t pass a cemetery without stopping to investigate.

    I definitely didn’t inherit that trait, but I really enjoyed this post and the photographs. It’s fascinating, and moving, to see the increasing religious diversity represented.

  4. Great post — very cool project and pictures. How did it feel for you to happen across a Community of Christ headstone? That must have made your day!

  5. Great post. Amazing. You obviously put a lot of work into this.

    Though I’m LDS, I would imagine a simple cross would work fine for me. I’m just not one of those cross-averse Latter-day Saints.

  6. Thanks, folks!

    John F (4): Ft. Leavenworth is very close to Jackson County, Missouri, and the largest concentration of Community of Christ members. We were excited to find several examples of Community of Christ veterans buried there. Essentially, finding the diversity is as easy as finding the newest section of the cemetery.

    We speculated that we would have found some of the other emblems, had we been able to visit some of the national cemeteries in California.

    Syphax (5): It did take a while, but we really enjoyed hunting through the cemeteries. My understanding is that you’d certainly be allowed to pick the standard latin cross, which represents all of Christianity (including the LDS Church, if Mormons like you do want to claim it), rather than any one denomination. However, I think it’s very nice that the denomination-specific emblem is also available.

  7. One could almost say that the level of recognition (Anerkennung) of people’s religious adherence or non-adherence in a nation’s veterans’ cemetaries is a barometer for how tolerant the society is. May we in the United States never forget what makes it possible for our society to be tolerant to the point of such recognition: the separation of Church and State.

  8. By the way, as to symbols, I would think the gravestone symbol depicted at the following link would be a better pick for the Mormon headstone: http://abev.wordpress.com/2009/07/13/our-dead-iv/

    Having said that, I am a huge fan of reading Moroni as the angel of Revelation 14:6-7, in fact it is my belief that this is the case:

    6 And I saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people,
    7 Saying with a loud voice, Fear God, and give glory to him; for the hour of his judgment is come: and worship him that made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and the fountains of waters.

    Given the prevalent belief among Latter-day Saints that this was fulfilled by the visits of the Angel Moroni to Joseph Smith, it makes for a fitting symbol of our religion.

  9. john f. in #7, Amen.

    John Hamer, this is an excellent post. I remember looking through these with you after your visit to Arlington, and am thrilled to see it go up in a post. I agree with you about the feeling of cemetaries being hallowed ground. I love spending time in them.

  10. FYI:
    This link lists all the VA approved ’emblems of belief’ for gravestones in national cemeteries:


%d bloggers like this: