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Friday, May 11, 2012

Getting the Names Right

by Bradly Baird (bio)

Cemeteries gently affect the spirit. As sentinels of our oh-so-human past, they also generously offer a sense that the veil is thin and the eternities very near. One can find a providential comfort - almost a solidarity with the past - as names, dates, and inscriptions are recited aloud, given thought, and sculptures are contemplated. I like to visit cemeteries wherever I go and it is always a great experience; even the oldest and most unkempt give me pause.

Every time I visit, I am reminded of a line from a favored television miniseries, Oliver's Travels. One of the main characters visits a monumental mason, named Mr. Delaney, who is carving the headstone of a recently murdered man. He inquires what Mr. Delaney knows of the man's death and Mr. Delaney replies, "Cause of death doesn't concern me. My job is to get the names right and comfort the bereaved with a little bit of beauty."

The part of the phrase that has stuck with me for years is "getting the names right," and it has - over the years - taken on a new meaning. It is a consideration of the way we commemorate the dead and whether we do it honorably. To "get the names right" means that if we honor the dead in a manner befitting the way they lived their lives, we have honored the dead well. And over the years I have encountered many people in memorial cults around the world who succeed in attempts at commemoration.

Recently, I was surfing the internet for information on memorial events (an old habit from my days as a student anthropologist researching the beginning of memorial cults in civilizations and the use of red ochre in ancient burial sites) and somehow it came to my attention that the Naval Cadet Unit at Fort Douglas in Salt Lake City were planning a ceremony as part of a nationwide series of celebrations that are sponsored and supported by the not-for-profit Wreaths Across America.

Commemorating America's veterans and all the servicemen who died defending American freedom, the ceremony takes place on the first weekend of December each year. I attended and it was a remarkable experience. The first portion of the day took place in one of the buildings on the modern Fort Douglas. We gathered with members of the armed services and contemplated what it means to be an American in a deeply moving ceremony. The unit commander began by commemorating our veterans through his own thoughts and experiences. This short speech was followed by an acknowledgement of all armed forces through displays of their flags and insignias, cadets marching, and music representing each military branch.

Then, a more solemn music began to play and a wreath was laid on the base of each flag. To complete this remarkable service, a roll call was held for all active members in the room, with each responding in a firm and respectful voice. I was, however, unprepared for the last name of the roll call, which was the name of a recently deceased member of the unit. The ranking officer called his name three times. No response came and a bell rang out. The entire military membership came to attention, saluted, and a trumpeter emerged to play taps. It was an incredible moment.

Following this, the entire company traveled to the Fort Douglas cemetery where some 300 servicemen are buried. After a moving tribute provided by the Naval Cadets, we quietly placed wreaths with a red bow on each serviceman's grave. The whole day was an experience that touched me and provided my son insight into the sacrifice required to protect our freedoms as Americans. It was an excellent teaching-learning moment; one that I hope to repeat every year.

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