Learning Life from the American Cemetery

I was saddened recently to see the state of one of the historic cemeteries in my neighborhood of Georgetown, of which I became aware in a post by Topher Matthews over at The Georgetown Metropolitan. The Mount Zion United Methodist Church/Female Union Band Cemetery is located on 27th and Q Streets NW, here in the nation’s capital, and as you can see from the photograph is in rather a sorry state; a similar situation exists at the Holy Rood Cemetery on Wisconsin Avenue, just outside of Georgetown proper but owned by Georgetown University, which has let the place run to ruin. While graveyards may not be, for many of us, a place where we care to linger, their continued existence in large American cities serves both an educational and a moral purpose, worthy of our preservation.

One of the features of the urban landscape in many parts of the country is the old church graveyard, something which  European visitors have observed to me as being a particularly unusual historical survival. While cemeteries and churchyards containing graves are common in rural locations on both continents, in many cities in the United States and in the Old World beginning in the 19th century, they disappeared from downtown areas by being paved over or moved into the suburbs. Oftentimes this led to the creation of large, landscaped parks specially set aside for the purpose, such as the Montjuich Cemetery along Barcelona’s waterfront, or Highgate Cemetery in London.

There are certainly many logical, practical reasons why cemeteries are no longer located in the midst of inner cities, though their rarity is really not such a new development as is their near-total absence. The burial of most of the dead outside of city centers has always been a feature of human civilization. We can look for example at the magnificently decorated Egyptian tombs located in remote deserts; the various Mosaic laws regarding burial contained in the Torah; the funeral practices of the Ancient Romans, including the building of the catacombs as virtual cities of the dead; or the attempts by medieval towns during the Plague to keep the living and healthy away from the dead and dying, by sending the latter far away to die or be buried.

Yet even though most people were not buried in the centers of the towns in which they lived, there were always some cemeteries located in the hearts of our cities, whether inside of churches and hospitals themselves, or located on their grounds. Last week, for example, I wrote about some religious art created for a cemetery in Belgium, which was considered to be so exceptional that pilgrimages to visit it were encouraged by Rome; unfortunately, the art and the cemetery disappeared during the Napoleonic period. That disappearance, along with the disappearance of countless other urban gravesites from downtown areas, is a phenomenon that deserves to be questioned, for there does seem to be a rather curious political and sociological coalescence which has lead both to the removal of the graveyard from the city, and the rising tide of secularism.

Beginning with the Enlightenment, continuing under the development of secular, civil law in both its American and European versions, and finally through the coming to power of various strains of socialism, not only has religion been pushed out of the public square, but so has Death itself. The worship of God has been replaced, initially by the worship of man, and finally by the worship of the self. We do not want to be reminded of our mortality, by seeing the graves of those who were unable to escape their own, when there is so much hedonistic pleasure and self-indulgence which we can have today without giving a thought to what will happen tomorrow. The reader is certainly welcome to disagree with me, but I do wonder whether the removal and neglect of our cemeteries in urban centers is not one of the best indicators of the horrific level of selfishness we have sunk to in the present day.

For those of us who live and work and cities, where the focus tends to be on materialistic concerns such as the obtaining of wealth or power for personal gain, the visual presence of a cemetery can be a powerful witness of the inevitability of Death. No matter how successful we may become, in the end all will turn to rot and ruin; there is no way to prevent this. While focusing on that fact too much can lead to nihilism, or sitting in the closet cutting yourself whilst reading the “Twlight” saga, I believe there is something very beneficent about taking the time to remember that man is dust, and unto dust he shall return. A society which cannot face Death, cannot face old age, nor physical frailty, nor physical deformity, nor ugliness, nor poverty, nor suffering, with anything approaching charity, decency, or empathy.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with being successful, or having nice things, or wanting to look your best. Yet it is the spirit with which one views these things that we need to take issue, for none of it is going to keep Death away from the door, when the time comes. Death is, after all, the great leveler of all things, and Americans would be well-served by being reminded of this fact on a more regular basis.  I wonder how much of our time, talents, and treasure we waste trying to delude ourselves into thinking that we are never going to grow old and die: no doubt the reasonable dollar figure would be staggering.

Turning back to where we began, the very sorry state of these two graveyards in Georgetown certainly deserves our criticism. It is disrespectful to the memory of those who are buried there, but also indicative of a very unhealthy attitude toward Death on the part of those charged with the upkeep of these places.  And particularly given the fact that these are religious, rather than civic cemeteries, their respective religious communities should be scandalized by this inexcusable negligence.

On a more personal note, I would suggest that for my readers who are willing, take advantage of a visit to the cemetery you pass on the way to work or school, even if you do not have any connection with the people buried there. For one day, you will have a very obvious connection with them, whether you like it or not. Reminding yourself of that fact from time to time, even if only by a brief stroll through the grounds, may go a long way toward helping you gain some perspective, and a healthy dose of realism to counteract the bitter pill of contemporary selfishness.


Some of the toppled gravestones at Holy Rood Cemetery, Georgetown

The Rise of the War Memorials

On the news last evening a report on the present conflicts in which this country is fighting caught my attention, though not because of casualty numbers or speeches by policy makers.  The curators of the visitor’s center being built near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial are planning to set aside part of their exhibition space, in order to mingle the story of U.S. involvement in Vietnam with that in Afghanistan and Iraq.  The same report explained that a formal memorial on the National Mall dedicated to those who fought in the latter two countries may take longer to approve.

The juxtaposition of the two present conflicts with that of Vietnam is interesting.  One wonders whether those in charge of this project will also include arguably more successful American military engagements, such as the Persian Gulf War in 1990.  Yet it begs the question, and admittedly many of my readers may find it an unpalatable one, as to why this is being done.

The birth of this country may have formally begun on paper, but it was ultimately achieved through bellicose means.  The United States  has participated in many armed conflicts over the course of its history, and will no doubt continue to do so.  If the American military has a well-deserved reputation for know-how and experience on the battlefield, it is because it has had plenty of practice.

Without listing every major military involvement in which the United States has participated since 1776, let me propose a list of some of the more important ones, at least in terms of numbers, parenthetically mentioning the approximate number of American military personnel killed. This is not meant to be viewed with scientific accuracy, but simply to give the reader an idea of the relative size of some of these conflicts:

The Revolutionary War (25,000)
The War of 1812 (20,000)
The Mexican-American War (13,283)
The Civil War (625,000)
The Spanish-American War (2,246)
World War I (116,516)
World War II (405,399)
The Korean War (36,516)
The Vietnam War (58,209)
The Afghan War (1,803)
The Iraq War (4,800)

This is by no means an exhaustive accounting of all armed involvement of this country in battles at home and abroad.  However, if you are familiar with the Nation’s Capital, you will notice a rather curious fact when examining this list: there are no national war memorials on The National Mall to those who fought and died in the first six wars on the above list. Why is this the case?

In order of appearance, the current group of national war memorials on The Mall began to appear in 1982, with the construction of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, i.e. “The Wall”. This was further expanded in 1984 with the “Three Soldiers” sculpture, and will now include the aforementioned visitor’s center nearby. The construction of this memorial was followed by the Vietnam Women’s Memorial in 1993; the Korean War Veterans Memorial in 1995; and the World War II Memorial in 2004.

Prior to the construction of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, many monuments to historically prominent individuals were erected around the Capital, though very few on or around The Mall itself. For example, by now most of my readers are very familiar with the monument to General McPherson, which sits in the now-infamous square that bears his name, and there are monuments to figures as diverse as Chief Justice Marshall or Samuel Gompers spread all over the city.  Yet memorials to wars themselves were something of a rarity.

As to how America usually honors its military dead on a national level here in the Capital, from the time of the Civil War to today the practice has been formal interment at Arlington National Cemetery. While prominent individuals such as McPherson might get their own monument in the city, the ordinary soldier who did his duty would not have expected the same level of individual recognition.  However, he still knew that he would have a place set aside by his country close to the heart of its capital city, where he would be remembered, along with his comrades.

Times have certainly changed, for there can be no question that over the past thirty years there has been a demonstrable, unprecedented shift in attitude toward the purpose of having a national memorial on The National Mall, and the increasing popularity of the construction of war memorials to the veterans of such conflicts being placed along it. I do not have any answers as to why this change has occurred. Yet considering the report which started off this blog post, we ought to ask some questions about this increasingly common practice.

For example, how are we to establish the criteria by which wars are to be memorialized on The National Mall? Is it a question of numbers, so that World War I merits a national memorial on The Mall, because of the large number of casualties involved, but not Grenada, because the losses there were much smaller?  Are we only to memorialize those conflicts where there are still veterans left alive who fought in them, or are we to go back even further into our history when looking for subject matter for these memorials?  What about civilians such as government contractors who are killed in foreign conflicts – should they also be included in such memorials?

As unpopular as it may be to ask these types of questions, they need to be asked. My readers will draw their own conclusions as to the merits of continuing the practice of building memorials to veterans of specific wars along The National Mall.  However, I would put all in mind of the inescapable fact that The Mall is a finite space, and in order to preserve its character we need to act judiciously, adopting a high level of discernment about what is going to be placed on or around it.

While it will no doubt make me decidedly unpopular in some quarters for saying so, it would seem to me that building a memorial to the veterans of each and every conflict in which the United States is involved along the National Mall will soon turn the place into a kind of quasi-military cemetery. This seems rather superfluous, when we already have a magnificent, unifying memorial to American servicemen and women directly across the river. As much as I honor their contributions to aid their country, perhaps they would be better served by preserving and expanding Arlington, rather than continuing to expand a somewhat disjointed presence on The National Mall.


View of The National Mall in Washington, D.C.