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Wreaths Across America

      
Todd Van Beck's picture
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“It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this."
Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Cemetery Dedication, November 19, 1863


The work of Wreaths Across America at Arlington National Cemetery. (All photos by Mike Flynn)

There are many efforts in this life that rightfully can claim to be a titled a “worthy ideal.”  In other words, the worthy ideal is a human effort which possesses great worth for the betterment of the human experience.  Without question, the organization called “Wreaths Across America” http://www.wreathsacrossamerica.org/ and their noble efforts and work fit the basic idea of the “worthy ideal” perfectly.  I would like to explore this notion.

Throughout the United States, thousands of dedicated human beings work diligently year after year with great fervor and nobility of purpose preparing hundreds of thousands of memorial wreaths to be placed on our veterans' graves, and as the great President Abraham Lincoln said so aptly at the battlefield cemetery dedication at Gettysburg, “It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.”

Throughout recorded history, from the Greeks to the Hebrews and on to the Christians, and for that matter to people across globe, the evergreen wreath, the wreath of laurel or holly or any material was and still is a universal symbol of victory, and also a universal symbol of human immortality.  This is powerful symbolic stuff to be sure, fraught with meaning and substance.

In fact, so all-encompassing is the universal symbol of the wreath that it has been used to grace the doors of generations of homes across the globe at the holiday season and to mark other significant rites of passages in order to convey the same symbolic message of victory and immortality.  World history is full of examples that make it abundantly clear that human beings everywhere are attracted to the idea of human victory over the strife and tribulations of life, and also to our hope for immortality.

This December, the Wreaths Across America organization gathered once again on the hallowed burial grounds of Arlington National Cemetery to lay over 23,000 wreaths on our honored veterans' graves throughout the cemetery.  This was an impressive accomplishment, to say the very least.

I was privileged for the first time to attend this reverential event, and it moved my spirit as few events have in my life (which is already long and has not been totally uneventful), and it also has moved me to put pen to paper in a humble attempt to embrace the emotional and spiritual impact that this magnanimous effort has had and still has on so many human beings.

Scores of volunteers devoted their time and attention to perpetuating in a real sense the noble ethic of Reverence for the Dead.  I would like to suggest that if the mission and work of Wreaths Across American is anything, it is a definite and clear message through human efforts, and not just mere words, that the ancient ethic of Reverence for our Dead is a terribly important part of what it means to be human.  I can assure the reader that the high ethical standard of Reverence for Our Dead is very present when the laborers in the vineyard at Arlington are tending to the graves of the men and woman whose lives in a real sense have translated into the freedom we all have in the here and now.

There was a ceremony mid-morning where a wreath was presented at the world famous Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  This ancient ritual was very dignified, moving and impressive.  However, after I walked the grounds of Arlington, I was struck with the idea that as impressive as the wreath presentation is at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the laying of the tens of thousands of other wreaths on the graves of the common everyday military person who rest in peace was equally dignified, equally moving and equally impressive.  The moral concept concerning the philosophy of the “Democracy of Death” comes to mind as I write these words, for death is without question the great and final arbiter and equalizer.

As I watched and participated in the massive wreath-laying effort, I was left with the impression that every single wreath placed on every single grave was in reality a small funeral ceremony, another attempt to reverently recognize a life lived.  Being on the grounds of Arlington, I felt it was also a symbol of the eternal gratitude of the entire nation to all military persons (active or retired, serving in war or peacetime) who, no matter what role they accepted in military service to this great country, in the end sacrificed their time or even their very lives for our freedom, whether that sacrifice took place on a battlefield or in a military installation sitting at a lonely typewriter filling out important documents.  It all is important.

As I walked throughout the hallowed grounds of Arlington National Cemetery, and looked at the thousands upon thousands of graves, I saw many that were marked “Unknown.”  After reflection on a more spiritual level, I got the distinct and undeniable feeling that these “Unknown” graves were in a real sense not “Unknown” to us at all.   I felt a sense that each person who lay in one of these “Unknown” graves was and is today truly known to us, to us Americans, regardless of the epitaph legend or lack thereof on the stone.  These men and women, all of them, were “one of our lads” or “one of our girls.”  I felt deeply that these dead Americans were part and are still a part of some American community. They are clearly remembered with or without a formal name or identification, and they most certainly are not some distant warriors relegated to ancient history books.  These dead, known or unknown, are not distant.  They can’t be, for in truth they make up a vital part of the core and fiber of this great land we call the United States of America, and truly the word united, grave united to grave, one after the other, is ever present on the grounds of Arlington.

There are many famous people buried in this cemetery.  Two United States presidents rest in Arlington, Supreme Court justices, generals of great and impressive ranks, admirals, statesmen, diplomats, the list goes on and on.   However I felt that no military leader or political potentate, regardless of rank or achievements, received any more of an honor than the simple buck private who on a certain day in history was quietly but reverently interred in America’s most hallowed and revered cemetery – Arlington.  This struck me as a terribly American approach to life, to our basic ideas about equality, about our liberty and about our freedoms.  All one has to do is to walk down just one row of the small white gravestones in Arlington, or any other such type of cemetery, to connect with this experience.  It is, I believe, very much worth the effort.

The day that Wreaths Across American tackled the daunting responsibility of laying thousands of wreaths on thousands of graves I witnessed people weeping, I noticed some sad expressions in this group of diligent workers.  Such it is with the human emotion of grief.  I even noticed a Boy Scout who had tears welled up in his eyes obviously touched to the core of his very being and to the depths of his very young soul when he was confronted with the overwhelming magnitude of sacrifice that each single individual small little white stones represented.

There were also many people who worked in the wreath laying efforts wearing colorful ribbons, badges, hats of all sorts, but what they mostly had in common was that they were wearing civilian clothes.  The military in all their impressive regalia was certainly there, but mostly the work was completed by ordinary American’s who obviously have not forgotten and who clearly love their country.  To these common everyday Americans, all the people buried in Arlington, while now dead, are in reality still familiar figures.  For many, the Arlington graves represented actual deceased military comrades in arms from their past, possibly the buddy they liked the most and with whom they used to share a “cold one” at the tavern, or possibly the one who went out onto the fields of death one day and gave the ultimate sacrifice.

A haunting and chilling thought struck me as I watched the living veterans from former military service now wearing their ribbons and hats while they worked diligently laying their wreaths, that many of them must have been thinking: “That could have been me.”  I felt sure that every man and woman on this day of wreath-laying fully realized that what they were doing was in a deep sense a symbol of the sacrifice that was paid for attaining a cherished freedom and peace, and that because of the sacrifice of these noble silent citizens in this world famous city of the dead that the world is and would now be a better place.  A better place – is that not a terribly simple idea when we read it or quickly scan over it on paper?  Good heavens, what a high price always has to be paid in literally earning the “better place.”  The “better place” may appear natural and easy, but history bears out the hard fact that attaining it and then keeping it always demands a horribly high price.

As I stood at the familiar Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, I looked up and in the brisk air I saw the red, white and blue, Old Glory, the good ol’ stars and stripes, flying in majesty high up in the air, and in an instant I knew that our flag was revealing to us all that these noble dead are not mythical warriors aloof from our common humanity, but fellows or gals dressed in the drab of khaki, stained by mud and grease, who went into the ditches and dirt with this very same flag leading their way.  I was moved at the realization that the dead of Arlington and we who are alive today are now still living under that same flag.

There were some impressive and important people at the ceremony, which began the formal wreath-laying.  I was impressed that this day these very impressive and important people were now ready, willing and prepared to honor the bodies of thousands of military people who had gone trudging through the mud and muck like one ant in a legion of ants, most far removed from the artificial celebrity so widespread in these complicated and confusing times.  There is nothing, absolutely nothing, artificial about Arlington National Cemetery – nothing.

As I stood at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, I thought about its history. On November 11, 1921, one particular dead soldier whose identity was unknown was brought before the greats of the United States military, Capitol Hill and even the president of the United States, Warren G. Harding, all of whom stood at attention on that day as the dull gray casket was positioned over the opened grave.

It was those great men who had made the decisions that sent that dead soldier down that long road that possibly blistered his feet, over ground impossible to cover because of ceaseless gunfire, up steep banks from which he might well have slipped under the weight of his bulky pack.  Whatever his rank in World War I, that famous “war to end all wars” this day marked the end of that particular soldier’s journey, which ended in a grave marked “Unknown.”

In life, this unknown soldier being buried on Armistice Day 1921 had no doubt looked upon these great men in awe.  Sometimes possibly he might have even saluted them as they rode past.  Now it was the turn of these great men to salute him, to keep their silence in his presence, to render him homage more wonderful, and with deeper reverence, than any general or president has ever or will ever receive.

Eighty-nine years later, a group of mission-bonded people stood in the same type of awe, in silence, in absolute humility, as one wreath after another was gently deposited in front of the small white stones in Arlington.  As I walked back with my wife after the wreath laying ceremony, I felt I now had some small inkling and insight as to how even the President of the United States must have felt way back in 1921.

We arrived at Arlington very early in the morning.  The sun was dimmed this morning because of mist and it was cold.  The mansion of old Arlington House, the former home of General Robert E. Lee and now the center of the cemetery, looked somewhat gloomy in the cold mist.  The Capitol dome could be seen faintly in the distance and while we had to walk some distance, I did not feel the least bit tired, in fact just the opposite.  As the sun moved up in the sky, the mist evaporated and we could see clearly the magnificent panorama of our nation’s famous capitol city.  There is something touching about watching the clouds and mist begin to evaporate and in so doing allowing the light of the sun to shine forth in full vigor.  People working with Wreaths Across America, I thought, were indeed following some kind of bright light of devoted mission, for I could see the light shine forth in their faces as they labored.

It seemed that there were thousands of people who arrived at Arlington to help lay the wreaths, but even with this great crowd I found things very silent and reverent in Arlington.  The dense crowd of people moved towards the trucks which held the wreaths with order and dignity, there was no pushing and pulling to “get my wreath.”  None of that pushy stuff happened.  All was solemn, quiet, and in such a reverential atmosphere one could feel the spirit of this crowd.  This gathering of everyday people I felt was touched with a sharp yet comforting thought as to what Wreaths Across America is really all about:  Freedom.

On November 11, 1921, the then paralyzed President Woodrow Wilson, who had been the country's war time leader, was asked to speak.  I believe what the stricken and very ill World War I president had to say in 1921 speaks to us today, and President Wilson’s thoughts are particularly appropriate for us to ponder in the days after the Wreaths Across America experience.

As President Wilson was carefully helped to the podium, his body frail with illness, his head now bowed by age, his hair turned snow white, and with his devoted and loving wife bracing his paralyzed and helpless left side, the great man shared a message I would like to suggest goes to the heart and soul of the Wreaths Across American mission, efforts and accomplishments.  This is what President Woodrow Wilson said:

"Our life is but a little span. One generation follows another very quickly. If a man with red blood in him had his choice, knowing that he must die, he would rather die to vindicate some right, unselfish to himself, than die in his own bed.

"This is what has brought us together today, for we are all touched with the love of the glory which is real glory, and the only real glory comes from utter self-forgetfulness and self-sacrifice. As impressive as this monument is, the true glory of the American experience is that we can never erect enough statues to men who have not been forgotten themselves and been glorified by the memory of others. This is the patriotic standard that America holds up to mankind in all sincerity and in all earnestness."

The crowd on that first November 11th stood with moistened eyes in absolute silence when President Wilson completed his brief remarks.  As the Great War leader was gently helped from the platform at the Arlington Amphitheater, a cheer went up that lasted ten minutes.  It was to be the only applause on the day of the funeral and burial of our first Unknown Soldier at Arlington.

I would like to suggest that the reason President Wilson gave to mark the importance of the very first burial ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is precisely the same reason for the thousands of smaller ceremonies conducted by Wreaths Across America in 2010.  The wreaths are, as President Wilson alluded, a noble attempt to glorify our honored dead and to make certain that they have NOT been forgotten.  The Wreaths Across America event touches one this very day with a love the real glory which, as President Wilson said, only comes from utter self-forgetfulness and self-sacrifice, which is precisely what every grave in Arlington ultimately signifies.  Wreaths Across America exemplifies the type of glory that President Wilson spoke about in 1921.  Utter self-forgetfulness and self-sacrifice seems to be the essential motivators for the work of Wreaths Across America.  I believe President Wilson would be pleased.

By noon time our work in the cemetery had been completed.  People began to say their farewells, and many were already planning to get together for the next Wreaths Across America in 2011.  As the words of parting and farewell died away, people quietly began to leave Arlington and it seemed to me that we all were on the march back to the joys and sorrows of daily life.  It just seems to be the way of things.

At last my wife and I left Arlington, but as I rode out of the gates of this sacred hallowed ground, this sacred national trust, I looked back and saw the host guard for the glorious dead at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier still at their post, still marching back and forth with military precision, still diligent in guarding “our boy.”

What I am about to write is really a terribly minor point, but the truth is, I felt a warm spot in my heart that in the far distance, way beyond the location of the famous well known Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, there was one small white innocuous headstone that at that very moment  as we left Arlington had a simple evergreen wreath laying on the grave – possibly, just maybe a wreath I might have placed.  Who knows if it was (God only knows), but I can without hesitation say this: I had a really warm feeling in my heart and I privately felt I had been a small part in a massive human effort of simply doing  the right thing.  Doing the right thing is a great idea, is it not?

(Thanks to funeral director Mike Flynn, F.J. Higgins Funeral Home & Cremation Service, Boston, Massachusetts, for the photos, taken during the 2010 Maine Funeral Directors Association Wreath Across America trip to Arlington National Cemetery.)