I have enjoyed Memorial Day as the holiday marking summer's start my whole life. I have even visited Arlington Cemetery occasionally during my five years living in Washington, D.C. Yet it was not until yesterday's visit to the Madingley Cemetery in Cambridge, England that Memorial Day became meaningful to me for the reason it was instituted.
As I walked among the 3,811 graves, I could not escape the solemn fact that these were the boys that never did make it home. Their sacrifice was made patently obvious by their being buried on foreign soil. I wondered: how many anxious wives, how many worried fathers, heartbroken mothers, and lonely siblings did these graves represent?
My own experience with death causes me to think of the families involved. One death, especially if premature, multiplies pain into dozens if not hundreds of lives, sometimes rippling its way across generations. The sacrifice of these soldiers was the sacrifice of all who never got to say goodbye.
I was moved by the graves' presence, but also by the coordinated care with which the graves were kept. For the holiday, each had a small American and Union Jack flag to mark the spot. The wreaths lain against the wall of the missing included those from various U.S. military units, the Sons of the American Revolution, the American Embassy, the European Command, and the Royal Air Force.
Nearly half of the graves were taken up by those in the army who died from accidents or disease endemic of active military service, the other half were shot-down airmen defending the British isles in the skies. Those laying side by side in perfect, semi-circle rows were from different units, branches, and often died years apart, a tribute to the fact that the dead were first temporarily buried there, then exummed en mass as part of the large effort to allow next of kin to determine where they wanted the body interred (in the U.S. or its temporary, foreign locale), and thereafter reburied at random.
I was surprised to learn that Cambridge was one of 24 foreign-soil cemeteries worldwide, wherein 124,909 war victims are buried. (Read this article for a touching Dutch cemetery tradition of local grave adoption.)
As I left near the 5:00 p.m. closing time, I was warmed by the familiar strains of "Sweet Hour of Prayer" played from the commemorative chapel's loudspeakers, followed by other American hymns. In this place so far from home, I was grateful to know that those buried here were faithfully remembered by those for whom their lives were given.
|Commemorative chapel and reflecting pool.|
|William H. Coons, from my home state of Utah.|
|The inscription, "To the Glory of God and in Memory of Those who Died for Their Country"|
seemed somewhat of a non sequitur, as they truly died for another's country.