Interment at Arlington
by John Delach
He died on December 12, 2002 six-days after celebrating his eighty-third birthday. Cancer of multiple organs was the cause a diagnosis rendered less than a month before his death. He died at home, in his sleep, under hospice care free of pain. Shortly before dying, he decided that his ashes should be interred at Arlington National Cemetery. Marilyn, his second wife, followed his instructions after cremating his remains without the presence of family or friends.
The administrators at Arlington processes twenty to thirty services each day, Monday to Friday. With so many World War II veterans dying, our family was told in March that Dad’s service would take place on Thursday, June 19, 2003.
We are a small family, but we all attended the service. Mary Ann and I drove down from New York as did our son, Michael, and his wife, Jodie. Our daughter, Beth, and her husband, Tom, used Amtrak. My two half-brothers and sister were there. Steven, flew to Florida from Oregon with his wife, Cathy, son and daughter, Jeffrey and Kelsey. They stayed with Marilyn then flew to Norfolk and drove to brother Mark and his wife, Nancy’s house outside of Richmond. They convoyed north to Arlington that morning as did Nancy’s mom and dad. Two of Marilyn’s cousins also attended. Our sister, Diana rounded out the group at sixteen when she arrived that morning from Maine.
The Catholic chaplain, a “full-bird” colonel, insisted that my Dad have a service in the Fort Myers chapel adjacent to the cemetery rather than in the administration building. I found this a curious ceremony for a man who freely and publicly proclaimed being an atheist. But it was not my call.
Fortunately, the chaplain kept the service simple and almost non-denominational. My daughter and son read from the old and new testament, Kelsey, read the petitions and the priest led us in the Lord’s Prayer. Unfortunately, he did not keep his homily simple but waxed poetically. He showered Dad and our family with qualities and attributes that never existed. As I listened to him, I wondered how he’d react if I limited my eulogy to:
“The sons of bitches of this world have lost their leader!”
But I didn’t. (Mary Ann wouldn’t allow it.) Instead, I said:
Dad led a remarkable life. He demonstrated fortitude, courage, honor, loquaciousness and grit for as long as I can remember. He had an unending thirst for knowledge that took him both figuratively and literally to all parts of the world.
His zest for life never diminished. He needed to know things, to understand them.
He was combative, and the Lord knows the confrontations we each had with him. But he did love and care for his family.
When his body deserted him, when he knew he had terminal cancer, he accepted this with dignity, honor and humor.
It is time to take joy in his life, in his memory. It is time to celebrate his life. That is why we are here.
This was true enough and made for a proper eulogy. Good thing too, in view of the size of the interment detachment that waited outside the chapel.
Dad’s rank, years of service, war record, citations and medals qualified him to receive a high military ceremony. A horseman with drawn sword led the formation. Behind him six horses stood hitched to the burial caisson. Three horses carried mounted riders. A band and an honor guard stood at attention as six pallbearers followed two others who inserted the urn into a compartment at the end of the coffin mounted on the caisson.
A four-man color guard led the procession away from the chapel. A twenty-piece band and an honor guard followed, proceeding the flag draped caisson and its eight pallbearers. We followed in our cars as part of the procession. Slowly, we proceeded through Arlington to the Columbarium where his remains were to be interred following the military service. I was humbled as the workers along our path ceased their activity and stood at attention as we passed.
Because it had rained earlier that morning and the forecast predicted afternoon showers, the airmen all wore blue raincoats. The humidity was not kind to them though they did not display their discomfort.
The pallbearers carried the urn to the central square where they set it down on a catafalque. They unfurled the American flag that had draped the coffin with great ceremony and held it taut as if covering a coffin. The band played. The chaplain spoke. We stood while the honor guard now positioned on a grass field two hundred yards away fired a twenty-one-gun salute. Taps followed.
The flag was re-folded, handed to the chaplain who handed it to Marilyn. Mark carried the urn to its assigned vault. The chaplain made a few more remarks and the service ended.
We walked back to our cars crossing the central square one last time. I calculated that about sixty Air Force personnel had participated in the ceremony. “Well, Dad,” I thought, “You got your due. Too bad you weren’t here for it. You would have loved it and I would bought you today’s first Scotch whiskey.”