A Walk with the Dead
I recently enjoyed a rare and welcome occasion of an afternoon free from plan or obligation. My first idea was to throw a saddle over the back of my horse and go galloping along some bridle path. The afternoon was dreary and overcast, however, and a blustery breeze gave me a chill that caused me to reconsider. A simple walk would do–no stirrups or saddle, no climbing ropes, no skis, no fishing rod. I needed only a place to stretch my legs.
When I go for a walk, I frequently choose cemeteries. They are quiet and contemplative spaces. They invite exploration. They are repositories of cultural history. They contain beautiful art.
I have always gained a great deal from my walks in cemeteries. One of my earliest memories is encountering a cemetery plot populated by gravestones of children and babies. Being a small child myself, this caught my eye. What would have taken the lives of so many other children, I thought. How strange that they all lived and died in different places. The only commonality I could find was the year of their deaths: 1918.
As I grew older I began looking for gravestones of immigrants that included languages other than English. I also looked for famous war heroes and explorers. These days I enjoy finding the gravestones of beer barons and writers.
On this particular walk, I decided to explore a national cemetery for US military veterans. What I enjoy most about military cemeteries is the mixture of backgrounds. What is unfortunate about other cemeteries is the fact that culture, religion, and tribe segregate them. Military cemeteries do not take such things into account–Christian is buried next to atheist, Jew next to Sikh, and so on. There is something exceptionally American about this arrangement.
As I wandered, I took careful notice of the many religious and philosophical symbols that appeared on the gravestones. Certainly there were many crosses of various styles. There were also crescent moons, angels blowing a horn, Nagari symbols, Stars of David, neatly piled rocks atop some headstones, and many others. Some I recognized, and many I did not. On this day I took careful notice of all these symbols—and I took their variety as evidence of the diversity of though and philosophy within our military. No single idea about life, no single holy book or prayer ruled those who protect us. I found this reassuring. And by the end of the day, I had gained more than a simple stretch of the legs.
The following is a collection of symbols that you will find on military gravestones. How many can you identify?