Anyone who has spent more than a few hours in Arlington National Cemetery has probably seen, from a distance, a military funeral of some kind. For me, it's impossible not to get caught up in the specifics of these rites, the symbolic details that offer details of the life, rank and service of the deceased. If Arlington is a cathedral in American civil religion, then these details are part of its high-church liturgical rites. The moment that always gets to me is when the officer of rank in the ceremony kneels and presents the now-folded flag from the casket to the spouse or mother of the fallen soldier and then offers a salute of honor to a civilian. If there are veterans reading this post and my memory has missed a detail in that sequence, please let me know. I know that I have seen that moment repeated a number of times (but this site suggests that I may be wrong).
I bring this up because of an excellent story from The News Journal in Wilmington, Del., that focuses on the rituals performed by teams of military personnel at Dover Air Force Base as the bodies of soldiers return from the front lines. The double-decker headline does a fine job of setting the tone for this feature, which is rich in fine details: "At Dover Air Force Base, Memorial Day is every day -- The flag, the prayer, the salute. Each dead service member receives the same solemn respect".
The opening of the story, by reporter Wade Malcolm, is focused and calm, which only adds to the power:
DOVER -- The chaplain was right, Linda Shea remembers thinking.
"The first thing you're going to see is the flag," she had told her.
She recalls scanning the dreary surroundings: The gray C-17 cargo plane. The muted fatigues of the stoic, somber military personnel. The box-shaped van -- plain white, like a bread truck without the logo. All of it set against the misty, gray weather of an early morning in mid-May.
Her eyes locked on the red, white and blue cloth wrapped around the metal case that held the body of her son, 21-year-old Cpl. Kurt S. Shea of Frederick, Md. The chaplain's warning hardly helped. Flanked by her husband on the right and her daughter on the left, she wept on the tarmac at Dover Air Force Base.
"Nothing prepares you to see your child in a box with a flag over it," she said.
You really need to read the story to absorb all of the details as, stage by stage, Malcolm walks you through the rites of passage. The YouTube video at the top of this post only covers one moment in process.
The key message in the story: This is normal, but it is not normal. For the professionals, this happens again and again and again. At times, it is hard to focus on the details because it is easy to be pulled in too deep. It's hard to watch, but it's almost impossible to turn away.
The religious element of the story is always present, because this is a story about ultimate issues. It is a compliment to say that I was left wanting to know more details, just a few more symbolic details.
Consider, for example, the presence of the word "prayer" -- singular -- in the headline. You know that there are many prayers said. But only one is included in the formal rite when the remains first arrive. Thus, we read:
When the officer in charge of the Advance Team receives word the family is on the way, he calls out, "Wheels rolling!"
With the family in place, the six white-gloved members of the carry team -- representing the same service branch as the fallen -- march across the flight line, swinging arms in unison. A row of high-ranking officers, usually colonels, called "the official party," follow behind. When the carry team enters the aircraft, the surrounding service members snap to attention. The chaplain says a prayer -- audible to those standing below the aircraft, though the words are not discernable. The prayer can change for each transfer -- one of the event's few variables -- but on Wednesday, Chaplain Lt. Col. Marti D. Reynolds said the following:
"Father, extend your arms of loving consolation. ... We ask that you care for those who are still in harm's way, bring healing and hope to this troubled world, and keep us ever mindful that in the midst of unimaginable and perhaps conflicting feelings that you alone are our refuge and strength and a very present help in times of trouble. Our honor here today signifies our heartfelt appreciation for the ultimate sacrifice."
You want to know more, right? Why do the prayers change? Are the prayers taken from an approved book of military rites? What do some of the other prayers say? What are the differences?
Is the faith commitment, if any, of the deceased taken into account? If so, this is an especially symbolic fact because the words of the prayer are only heard -- if you view this in materialistic terms -- by the people standing in the aircraft.
Yet, yet, yet ... It says so much if the chaplains words honor the faith commitment of the fallen and his or her family. That Jewish prayers are said for Jewish soldiers, Islamic prayers for Muslim soldiers, Catholic prayers for Catholic soldiers, etc. Yet, what does it say if the contents of the prayer do not change? I want to know more.
You need to read the whole story and, yes, you need to read it on Memorial Day.