Interment at Arlington

Part three of my Father’s Day Trilogy. This story was originally written in 2003 and a version of it appeared in my anthology: The Big Orange Dog and Other Stories.”

He died on December 12, 2002 shortly after his eighty-third birthday, cause of death, cancer in multiple organs. He had been diagnosed less than a month before his death and he died at home, in his sleep, under hospice carefree of pain. An atheist, he had little concern for the disposition of his remains except that they should be cremated, but shortly before dying, he decided to have his ashes interred at Arlington National Cemetery. His wife, Marilyn, followed his instructions having his remains cremated without family or friends.

The administration at Arlington processes twenty to thirty-five services a day, Monday to Friday. Even so, with casualties from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and with so many World War II veterans dying; our family was told in March that Dad’s service would not take place until Thursday, June 19, 2003.

We are a small family, and everybody decided to attend. 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, rode down on Amtrak.

Steven, my youngest half-brother, flew to Florida from Oregon with his wife, Cathy, and son and daughter, Jeffrey and Kelsey to stay with Marilyn. They flew to Norfolk and drove to Richmond to meet up with Steve’s oldest brother Mark and, his wife, Nancy. Together, they drove north to Arlington that morning. Nancy’s mom and dad also drove from their home in Emporia, Virginia to attend. Two nephews of Marilyn 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 curious as Dad’s freely and publicly atheistic beliefs were well-known.  He had had little contact with anything Catholic since he divorced my mother shortly after World War II ended. The chaplain’s insistence led me to surmise that Dad never changed his Air Force records.

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, choosing instead to wax poetically, showering Dad and our family with qualities and attributes that never existed. As I listened to him, I wondered how he’d react if I changed Dad’s eulogy and included the line, “The sons of bitches of this world have lost their leader!”

But I didn’t. Here is what 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. His need to know things to understand them never diminished.

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 and metals qualified him to receive a high military ceremony. A horseman with drawn saber led the formation. Behind him six horses stood hitched to a caisson. Three horses had riders. A band and 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 a honor guard consisting of twenty-one airmen followed. They led the flag draped caisson flanked by the 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 a last military service. 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 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. They unfurled the flag with great ceremony, holding it outstretched imitating how it would hang if draped over a coffin. The band played and the chaplain spoke. We were asked to stand while a separate squad of eight airmen positioned in a grass field two hundred yards away fired a twenty-one gun salute after which Taps was played. The honor guard re-folded the flag, handed it to the chaplain who handed it to my father’s widow. A retired military wife sat next to Marilyn during the entire ceremony providing guidance and comfort. Mark carried the urn to its assigned vault. The chaplain made a few more erroneous 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 received your due today. Too bad you weren’t here for it; you would have loved it.”