Originally Published: April 22, 2002
It is a huge place, Arlington Cemetery.
“Marble orchard” would not be an accurate term. These rows of white slabs have fallen from no tree. They seem instead to push up from the earth, emerging from the green, tended grass more like the sun-seeking tops of root vegetables. There are lots of them. Regiments. Squadrons. Fleets.
The cemetery currently covers 200 acres and has more than 260,000 people buried there, whom almost 4 million people visit annually.
And to think it all started in Robert E. Lee’s back yard in his beloved Arlington. With an extended middle finger, the Union grimly planted the dead right up to his doorstep.
I was at the cemetery to attend the memorial service for Warren Davenport Clardy, 1913 – 2002. He and his wife Betty owned our house for 35 years before selling it to us.
Mr. Clardy had handed his house over to us so gently, so thoughtfully, that it almost seemed we were being willed the thing. “Good vibes” don’t factor into the sale price of a house, but if they had, we would never have been able to afford this place.
And of course, what was left behind in their house became the basis for my recent flurry of artistic activity, the seeds for Everyday Household Objects. Is it an odd thing that he should pass away on the very day I hung the last piece in the gallery? If I believed in such things, I would get an eerie chill.
But I don’t.
Instead what I felt was a need to say thank you, and attending his funeral seemed to be my last chance to do that.
I went with our neighbor. It was he who called me Sunday night to tell me the news. He said that Mr. Clardy had been a superb neighbor, had always been liberal, not “closed off to things and ideas” as he put it. I already knew that from the mail that still comes addressed to him. Pleas for money from human rights, family planning, poverty and disease-fighting groups. A man doesn’t get on all those lists by sitting on his hands.
Friends and family gathered in one of the waiting rooms at Arlington Cemetery (I was neither friend nor family so what was my role; Beneficiary? Scavenger?). Mr. Clardy’s large, multi-generational family stood and greeted all who entered. There were few tears. He had been 88, and had died peacefully in his sleep having been fully active up to the end, I overheard his wife of 60 years saying.
So many of the family looked familiar to me, though I’d never met any of them. I suppose there is a certain similarity among family members at funerals. There always seem to be lanky young men in ill-fitting dark suits, their hair unnaturally tamed back, and their faces newly shaven. They gratefully attend to the needs of young children in white shirts that have come untucked from pants cinched in at tiny waists. Their flat feet, tripping along in stiff leather shoes, run in and out among the forest of adult legs, the young men trying half-heartedly to corral them.
The family members looked back at me with welcoming smiles and warm handshakes. No one crashes a funeral – she must belong here.
With my neighbor, I went to speak to Mrs. Clardy. She was charming and steadfast. I guess one has to be, at Arlington Cemetery, one of the world’s best-known burial grounds. It is all very upright, very serious there. Outside the door, a uniformed officer stood at attention, his eyes staring off into the distance, into some remote point in space that allowed him to maintain his muscles taut and his mind pure.
An authoritative woman told us all to line up behind her black Ford Taurus. In the withering heat we headed back to our cars and slowly tailgated one another along the narrow road, past signs to monuments, memorials, drives, gates and niches. It was a surprisingly long way.
Unbidden, symbolism can be very heavy-handed, with all the subtlety of an Oliver Stone movie. As we crawled centipede-like along a turn in the road, there, rising over the green mounds of the cemetery, was the wounded Pentagon. Poised above it swayed the healing cranes of reconstruction, shining yellow in the noonday sun. Overhead, a plane that had just taken off from the now fully re-opened National airport, hauled itself straight up into the blue. Its steel glinted and its engines roared. And there we were, pulling to the curb to attend one of 20 burials that would be held that day at Arlington Cemetery, 20 of 7,000 that would take place this year. Ok, so life and death go on. And on. I get it. Enough.
Intensely emotional, military funerals have been described, and I would not argue, now that I have witnessed one. I understood little of the symbolism – the number of soldiers in the honor guard, the number of rifles for the salute of the firing party, the body bearers and the horse-drawn cart, the strange, oddly beautiful ritual of flag folding after it has been held aloft and taut over the urn by six guards, their spotless white gloves working independently while their eyes stared straight ahead, their crisp hand movements, like salutes and benedictions mixed into one.
There is some incongruity in the pizza slice-shaped cardboard box the flag is later placed in for the survivors. Like carry-out.
Three volleys of “musketry” over the grave made nearly everyone jump, even though we’d been expecting it.
And then a lone bugler played Taps. Composed one night by a Civil War General seven days before the battle of Richmond, Taps just might be the most moving snippet of music ever written.
By then, people were no longer thinking how fortunate Mr. Clardy had been to reach the age of 88. He had been much loved. It was impossible not to be moved.
The group then moved into the Columbarium which houses 5,000 spaces for urns.
Just an aside: Columbarium is not in my dictionary, and is a strange word. It lends itself a little too easily to disrespectful and unholy manipulation. Call ‘em, bury ‘em, or Colonbarium, or other nasty twists. I gather, from web sites I visited, a columbarium is a sleek architectural structure designed for the purpose of housing large numbers of urns. Spiritual lockers, of a sort.
There was a chaplain who gave a brief service. It was clear he did not know Mr. Clardy. I heard a woman close to me mutter that a relative of hers had been buried there in 1950, and it had been exactly the same service back then. Her companions chuckled, not derisively, but with a certain resignation.
Afterwards, the chaplain spoke somberly to Mrs. Clardy at very close range, then left the columbarium, walking sedately past us, head bowed as though deep in thought. I was at the back of the group, and so saw his chin snap up and his step brighten the moment he turned the corner. With 20 burials a day, a chaplain can’t afford to get attached.
I had been fighting to gain control of myself since Taps, not too successfully. I was among the first out of the columbarium to walk back to my car, tearful, turning, of course, in the wrong direction at first – I never did have a sense of direction. Getting lost in Arlington Cemetery and dying of heat stroke in the back forty – now that would be a story.
Warren Clardy, or perhaps one who knew him well, had chosen Ralph Waldo Emerson to summarize his hopes for what his life had been:
To laugh often and much;
To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children;
To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends;
To appreciate beauty; to find the best in others;
To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child,
A garden patch or a redeemed social condition;
To know even one life has breathed easier because you lived;
This is to have succeeded.
I’d just like to say thank you, Mr. Clardy. Thank you.
Your beneficiary and scavenger,
(A last aside: From the Emerson web site: Scholars agree that “Success”, the most famous poem attributed to Emerson, is almost certainly not his work.)