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  • Memorial Day
  • Linda Underhill (bio)

I like walk to walk alone in graveyards, especially the ones in small towns, where no one particularly famous is buried. I like to walk down the paths among the headstones, reading the inscriptions and looking at the flowers and the trees. These are quiet places where no traffic roars and no radios blare, and the residents are all peacefully sleeping. "Safe in their alabaster chambers," Emily Dickinson wrote,

Untouched by morning and untouched by noon, Sleep the meek members of the resurrection.

She was being slyly ironic, wasn't she? Shouldn't the resurrected be awake? But despite being a poet, Dickinson was almost always a realist. She knew both heaven and hell can be found in the here, and now.

With their stone tablets left to grow mossy and green in the shade of ancient trees, these country graveyards seem to me serene sanctuaries of memory. There are other, more famous memorials, of course. At the Vietnam War Memorial, the highly polished black granite of the wall is reflective. Look into it to find the name of someone you knew who died in the war, and you will see your own face. Walk down into the sloping pit that gets deeper as the wall gets higher, and you are struck with the relentless slaughter in the rush of names. "I had an impulse to cut the earth . . . an initial violence that in time would heal," designer Maya Lin recalls of first seeing the site chosen for the memorial. Her monument is a kind of antiwar memorial, for nowhere does it glorify military might. That may be why some members of the military establishment opposed it. Her design includes no heroic poses or noble sentiments, just the reminder of how many people lost their lives, just the silent recitation of their names in stone. [End Page 89]

In the small town of Wellsville, New York, where I live, the Woodlawn Cemetery makes no profound statements, although back in a leafy corner is a statue of a Civil War general named Rufus Scott. His is the highest pedestal, and a number of the stones here bear witness to the country's bloodiest war. The inscription declares that Scott served in the 23rd New York Infantry, the 130th New York Infantry, and the 23rd New York Dragoons. He survived the War between the States to live a long life. Others who did not are buried all around him. Today is really their holiday, for Memorial Day was created to honor those who died in the Civil War.

On Memorial Day this year, identical red, white, and blue flags whip in a damp wind. We've had a cold spring, and it's a bad time for picnics or parades. But today at least the flags and the flowers have been set out to decorate the well-tended graves. There are bright red geraniums in most of the urns, and one grave sports a pink whirligig spinning furiously in a stiff, damp breeze. I wonder who put it here, and if it is meant as a reminder of the insouciant spirit of the woman buried beneath it, or as a token left by a child who loved her.

Then there is the inscription on the headstone of Arthur C. Peterson that reads "Along the way take time to smell the flowers." My father and Mr. Peterson, I see from the headstone, were almost exactly the same age. They died a few days apart from each other in 1998, and I know my father would have shared the sentiment of Mr. Peterson's epitaph. "Enjoy life to the fullest" could have been my father's motto, and Arthur Peterson's grave reminds me to follow this advice.

There are hundreds of stories here, most of which I will never know. Who were Doris and Robert L. Christman, and why is their headstone engraved with the image of an airplane? What about Dale Prince, who died when he was only 18 years of age? On his stone is simply his name, the dates of his birth and his death, and the image of what looks suspiciously like a football...


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pp. 89-92
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