A visit to Arlington is inspiring
Published 4:45 pm Tuesday, June 18, 2019
Just when you think you’ve grown cynical to the point of no return about the future of our country and its institutions, something comes along to remind you of the greatness — and great potential — that remains.
Air Force Colonel Elsey Harris Jr., who in retirement was town manager of Smithfield for two decades, died some years ago. There were questions as to where and then when he would ultimately be buried, and so his ashes sat alongside his beloved wife Carroll’s for some years. His final wish was to be interred at Arlington, and so arrangements were made made for him and Carroll to be buried there alongside each other this past week.
I rode to Arlington for the service with funeral director Robert Little, and came away inspired and renewed by what I saw. The burial ceremony, of course, was hugely impressive, but equally so was the more than three dozen tour buses lined up along the entry and parking lot to the nation’s most hallowed burial ground. Most, it appeared to me, were carrying high school students.
Whether it was the students’ first, or final, stop in Washington, the presence of so many on a Thursday morning says something very positive about the organizers of their travels, for nowhere, in this nation at least, is the more than two centuries of sacrifice by service men and women on more poignant display than among the graves of Arlington.
Children will find pleasure and joy wherever they go, but I suspect the images of Arlington will be a lingering memory for them.
Beyond the buses, of course, the most impressive part of our visit was the burial.
Elsey was a career Air Force aviator and base commander and was qualified for full honors at Arlington. Carroll was a World War II veteran, an Army sergeant, and was due basic military honors for her service as well. Thus, a dual burial was arranged for last week.
A full honor guard, band, color guard, rifle salute squad, flag folders, chaplain and representatives of the Secretary of the Air Force and Army performed the official duties. They numbered nearly 50 people.
While Arlington welcomes thousands of visitors, including the touring students, the cemetery handles burials with a dignity and grace that seems impossible as you approach the entrance with hordes of people around.
A burial manager accompanies families, guiding them step-by-step through the highly organized and solemn ceremony, and I was impressed that the cemetery staff, to a person, paid close attention to a very small funeral procession, stopping tourists and clearing a path as it progressed. Two employees were mowing grass as the procession neared the staging area. They stopped, turned off the mowers and stood quietly aside until the procession had moved on.
From start to finish, the Arlington staff and military contingent focused on honoring what was occurring with the Harris family, and by extension honored to all veterans.
While the honors rendered vary, the Arlington staff repeats what we participated in an average of 25 times a day.
The most last impression of Arlington, though, is the scale of the cemetery. Riding through the cemetery to its northwest corner, we passed several hundred acres of graves — marking a small percentage of the 400,000 graves in this most hallowed site.
Elsey and Carroll were laid to rest in a brand new section of the cemetery. On the rise above that section is a wall that appeared to be more than a tenth of a mile long, containing thousands upon thousands of columbarium niches, an assurance that Arlington will continuing honoring the nation’s service men and women in the years to come.