Sometimes I’m amazed at the places ministry takes me. Yesterday I co-officiated at a memorial service at Arlington National Cemetery, a service complete with full military honors for a Navy Captain. The deceased was the father of a beloved parishioner (and yes, they are each beloved parishioners).
I think that without meaning to be, we were just a bit outside the box, by co-officiiating. The chaplain usually does either the whole ceremony or nothing. Turns out, with Protestants he does everything, with Catholics the priest does everything. I think the reason for this is that timing is everything at Arlington. The service can be precisely 20 minutes, no fudge room. You start 5 minutes ahead, to have time for the carrying in of the remains. Twenty minutes, and you’re out. The chaplain and I met just 15 minutes before the service and he was a little surprised at the thought of sharing the service, but, once he got over his initial discomfort, everything went fine. In fact, it went absolutely smoothly.
Here’s what I noticed: the clergy get the best seat in the house. While the congregation was inside, waiting to begin, I got to stand outside and watch the military formalities: sailors in formation doing their drills while the Navy Band played, six higher-ranked sailors removing the box of cremains from the limousine. It was raining lightly while we stood there, but my only concern was that my beloved funeral book might become a little furled.
The chaplain and I processed in while he read from a Psalm (I regret that I am on such overload that I cannot tell you the number). The cremains and flag followed us, and were placed with ceremony.
The rest of the memorial service was our usual Presbyterian order, which my parishioner had put together using my resources, and it included prayers, readings, and, of course, the Navy hymn. She gave a eulogy, which was so carefully worded and eloquently given, that she encompassed her father’s long life in six minutes. Of course, that was too brief, but she had understood the time constraints and did an amazing job within them. Her words honored her father, and her ability to share them on such an emotional day, speaks to her steadfastness.
My part was so brief, as to not deserve the term “homily.” I lifted up the “sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life,” a phrase so eloquent it can hardly be improved upon.
When the service ended, the remains were brought out again, with ceremony. The band began to play, the sailors all at attention. The earlier rain had passed, and it was just very, very windy. I opted to walk with the procession, rather than ride, and was so glad to have the opportunity. The walk took 25 minutes. (I had borrowed a pair of my daughter’s black shoes which were good for walking, and silently praised the Lord for prompting me to make the switch from my usual heels!)
The order of the procession was: the Navy Band (20-25 pieces), sailors in formation (maybe 30 of them), then the clergy and a Captain (who took care of the graveside honors), then the horse-drawn caisson, with 6 horses and 3 riders, then the string of cars belonging to mourners.
Arlington Cemetery is a special place, have you been there? I remember visiting as a 16 year old, and I can even recall what I wore, from the pictures. If you had told that girl that she would be walking in such a procession, she simply wouldn’t have believed you. At that point in my life it had not occurred to me that women could do any of these things.
Arlington Cemetery is a beautiful place, rolling hills studded with white markers, all mathematically precise. On this day the trees were black against a gray sky and everything trembled in the wind.
As we walked, I learned a lot about the Navy, a world I am ignorant about. Both the Captain and the Chaplain were very congenial. At one point my stole absolutely whipped the Captain in the face. The Chaplain just said, “you need an alb with a cincture when you do this.” A few moments later I almost lost the stole all together, so then I clamped my hands down to hold it in place.
At the graveside, taps were played, the call of a single bugle. Then there was a ceremony to unfold the flag. I had never seen this so close, or watched it so closely. Eight men, and five minutes, and absolutely crisp movements. With the flag held open, there was a gun salute. Then the refolding of the flag, which was presented to the widow. A bagpiper, standing a little way off, concluded the ceremony. A bagpiper playing on a windy hill in a cemetery is an exceedingly mournful sound.
The day was about honoring the dead, of course, as it should be. Captain Wm. Holden was an honorable man, who lived a long and full life. Besides his service to his country, he was a lawyer, and very civic-minded. He was a very beloved father.
We honored the flag, also, and our country, and the military, and everything that represents.
I have more thoughts to chew on here, as they are a work-in-progress, but I wanted to capture this experience on the page while it was fresh.
Rest in peace, Capt Wm Holden. May the Lord comfort all those who mourn.