At Work Monuments and Memory: Working at Arlington National Cemetery
“It was an alternate world, where the dead came everyday, and we treated it as normal.”
Thank you for your service . That’s what I heard as I sweated through my pant legs. I looked up at my boss, an active-duty chief warrant officer sporting fatigues, and watched as he smiled back. I never knew how to react. We walked through DC’s humid summer stink―among tourists, under ropes, between graves―to look at a headstone that had uprooted itself from the ground, tilting sideways, charging the cemetery’s symmetry with the jagged outline of something that no longer belonged.
In the distance, hundreds of pale headstones melded into smooth ellipses as they rolled over hills. The grass was the same height as the day before, cut by an invisible hand. Each slab’s marble, mined from a constant quarry, gleamed a constant tooth-white shine that matched the white of the horses that led the dead’s caskets down Arlington’s hills from the small chapel where many funerals began. I stood up after kneeling and did what I had done the day before, and the day before that. I looked, not really knowing what to feel, or how. The cemetery’s strict design policy, the way the marble headstones turned with the land, breaking off like a poem’s perfect line, in that moment made me more aware of beauty itself than of any human’s hand in crafting such beauty. Few places I had been felt so gorgeous and strange, each at once.
This was in 2011, during one of two summers I spent working at Arlington Cemetery. The son of a man who served in the Army and then went on to devote his life to its cause, I grew up eating lunch in Pentagon food courts and spending a month a year on the other side of the country, tagging along with my father as he worked. When I had the opportunity to work among the dead he so cherished, it felt both right and fair, a duty wrapped in blood. There, as a jack-of-all-trades, I fixed computers, took photographs, and walked the grounds with my boss to mediate any problems in the field. Broken headstones. Database errors. Camera issues. Despite its status as the nation’s most hallowed cemetery, Arlington still suffered at the hands of both humans and nature.
At least once a day we ventured out, perspiring, to look at graves. The reverence at Arlington is contagious, but odd, comprised mostly of the tourist’s awkward self-enforced solemnity that reads as yes, I’m slowly realizing there’s something more important than me happening here, but I don’t quite know how to react to it . Standing in front of the crooked marble, staring at the sprawl, a feeling struck me that took me a while to name. Danger, I’d call it now. The unthinking, near-nationalistic acceptance that comes when death is rendered in mathematically gorgeous terms. In that dotted landscape of graves, I considered this nation’s obsession with memorializing its history, which, I’d argue, often has less to do with respecting the past than presenting a cleaner version of it, making it difficult for citizens to be engaged; to both participate within the state while criticizing the state at the same time; to say, “Yes, I respect a human’s life but I don’t respect the way in which it ended, or the reasons it was in such danger to begin with.”
Like most structures Americans worship, Arlington National Cemetery came about as an act of colonization. Union generals during the Civil War made the brash decision to bury some of the early dead on the grounds of Robert and Mary Lee’s home. In their garden, under their trees. They figured that once Robert E. Lee came back from the war, he wouldn’t want to live in a place surrounded by so many he helped kill. The plan worked, and the house no longer was a home, and the loping wide hills outgrew themselves, soon becoming dotted with the speckled glare of thousands of marble headstones.
There is no blood on the marble. No speck of red, no bodies still lying prone and lifeless in the grass. There is nothing to remind you of death other than what the state provides―a slab of marble, an etched name, a timeline.
After work, in the coming evening’s orange light, I walked again, this time alone. In a secluded corner of Arlington Cemetery sits an unadorned collection of headstones marked by the words “civilian” and “citizen” instead of any typical military titling. There are simply names. They go on and on. I went there, to Section 27, where amidst the shade of Arlington’s expansive grounds, lay thousands of freed black men, women, and children, buried during the Civil War.
It was only when I found that small, tucked-away section that I felt most at home, not because of who was buried beneath the ground, but because of the headstones, and how little they said―just a name and a word, not even a timestamp, a marker of years. I put my hand on each headstone’s weary marble. One read Buck. Robert. Anna. A few, just “Child.” These were lives unadorned, and, as such, timeless. There was no war involved in their death because the state played no real role in such burials―they were organized by a civilian undertaker. Memory in Section 27 was only granted to those who knew what to look for, and what to remember once they found it. There were no tourists. No buses, no cars. I found myself standing in near-constant shade, the setting sun flittering between the leaves shining a dappled light on the stones, glittering.
I ate an apple and lingered in front of one headstone that simply read “Child.” I made up a story. I named the child Emma. I watched her on the Potomac in the distance, floating downriver on a houseboat, waving to me or no one in particular.
When I went home that night, as always, I grew afraid of death. I crawled into bed and dreamed my father into a dead body, woke up shivering and crying. Even now, I am afraid of death. But then, among those graves, I wasn’t. Death seemed a quiet thing, the sitting down after a long walk across a field.
I needed that break and the ones that followed, because the reality of Arlington was often too much to bear. Every day there were over a dozen funerals―sometimes just to honor a body part, the rest of the body too mangled by disaster―and I found myself walking through crowds of mourners each hour, pissing next to someone who was drying off tears, or standing out in the wide spotted grass only to hear a bugle’s sad moan echo across the marble. I cried often. I didn’t really know why. I just felt like crying. Why war? I wanted to say. Why death? Why this life? And the next?
The next morning, or the next, or the next―I don’t remember, the days blurred and murky―someone my age was going into the ground. We received the burial schedule upon arrival. I found myself quivering in my office, feeling like I had to apologize when the funeral began, like I had to leave my job and say, It should’ve been me. My mind made no sense in that space between the fields. The funereal white horses cantered out of a different universe. It was an alternate world, where the dead came every day, and we treated it as normal. In perhaps the most American place on earth, confronted with the enigmatic complexity of a place that honors life as well as violence, I began to feel disassociated from America.
In Kenzaburo Oe’s Hiroshima Notes , he writes, “ It takes a person of great care and insight to watch for any abnormality in the green grass even while it grows abundantly and healthily.” Arlington’s grass is mowed to a specific height daily. The headstones are separated by an exact width, down to the centimeter ― everything shored up to perfection. Something in all of that felt supremely abnormal to me.
My time at Arlington made me question what it means to be a part of a country that pretties up its history, making it easier, more beautiful to swallow. Consider the fact that many monuments are constructed from marble, and how marble, at its purest―a limestone that contains little clay or iron―is a gleaming white. If marble is even remotely “impure,” it can be crushed and “whitened.” I don’t need to explain the latent metaphor, or relate it to the whiteness of history. In its material of construction and its architecture, a monument’s relationship to memory is tethered to the way in which the monument presents itself. In other words, a monument is designed to keep you at a distance, to keep you from questioning a very specific history and a very specific feeling. This is why Lincoln’s massive reposed figure sits next to the Gettysburg Address and not an account of how he ordered the hanging of thirty-eight Native Americans. But we don’t need memorials now; we need reminders so we don’t succumb to old evils in newer light.
In his beautiful long poem “Arbor for Butch,” Terrance Hayes writes, “ Certain arrangements must be made / if you want access to the past.” In the same way, certain arrangements will prevent access to the past. At Arlington, with the rows neatly aligned along the gentle rolls of nature, the perfect sprawl of American life, I often thought: How does this have anything to do with violence?
Most of this country’s history operates like a cemetery, and when the body is not present, neither are our questions that can hold anyone accountable. Perhaps the most American trait is cognitive dissonance, the ability to hold two contradictory thoughts in your head at once without exploding. As such, I have learned that much of America’s mission has less to do with bearing witness than erasing its possibility. We are told never to forget 9/11, to remember it as a modern invasion of the continental United States, but in doing so, we erase the fact that this country was formed through invasion and colonization.
For the past few weeks, I’ve been caught in the subterranean angst of my first overwhelming existential crisis. Not of the why am I here variety. More like death-is-an-unconscious-abyss-that-may-render-life-inconsequential-and-why-is-no-one-else-freaking-out . Every day without a cigarette needs a day with one to calm the anxiety. Every day with a cigarette needs a day without one to quell the paranoia of mortality. Every day another stranger dies: another lover, another found friend, another respected artist. Every day the birth date beckons from somewhere closer to now. Every day the country teeters, slipping quite consciously out of grip and recognition.
This is why I’m returning to Arlington in my mind, but not to the large swath of the cemetery itself, only the unpolished, unvarnished, tilting headstones of Section 27. The names, washed by rain and blown almost unreadable by wind. Just names. Who are we in the end but what we were called and some fading, barely colored memory of that-thing-we-once-did? In Section 27, away from the memory of violence or its honor, there were ghosts keeping watch.
Living in New York City now, I travel often to cemeteries to simply walk around. Woodlawn, Green-Wood, Trinity. I’ve been to a number of them both in the grip of my existential crisis and not, not necessarily out of some odd fixation, but mostly to put me at ease with something I find hard to name―dying, infinity, the big unknown of life. These cemeteries have given in to time and age. Headstones sit on their sides, grow out of trees. Huge monuments stand for the rich, the famous, the almost-famous, the thought-they’d-be-famous. Padlocks bar entrance to old tombs. It’s amazing how much space money can afford you in death.
Arlington, like these old cemeteries, will not last much longer. I learned this while I was there. The cost of war is, first and foremost, people, and there is not enough land to house all the dying our living creates, and all the space our dying necessitates. The cemetery now runs astride highways, butts up to major defense complexes. There is a shelf life for everything, it seems. Even the shelving of our dead.
Not long before I finished at Arlington, I remember seeing someone else in Section 27 for the first time. He sat silent next to a headstone, having been there for some time, still there after I left. I didn’t talk to him. I looked at him from a distance and imagined my father in the ground, a reality I am sure I will know at some point. When his mother died just over a year ago, my father for the first time talked specifically about his own death. A veteran who has worked for the Army now for decades, he wanted to be buried in Arlington. He wanted the bugler standing in the distance.
I listened to him from the backseat of the car and began to cry, knowing my brother and I would carry the task of our father’s burial, wanting, however wrong of me, to put him in a pine box and simply sit with the body for a little while, in a field with no names, and then set fire to it, and walk away, holding the sacred weight of him in my chest. As he climbs in age, ascending through the seventies, and as we grow both closer together and further apart, I fluctuate between a sense of calm and angst, hoping, as we all sometimes do, that this is the first time anyone has ever lived, that there is no such thing as history, and therefore no such thing as death.
I didn’t realize it while I worked at Arlington, but I am realizing it now: Perhaps all that remains after a person’s life is what can be shaped by the mind, not the hand. What is left of us physically is arranged—and then dissolves—into earth, warping like a headstone into a tree, whether someone tries to keep this from happening or not. It is how we are remembered, then, that matters. Outside of Arlington, even the most magnificent tombs crumble, fall victim to weather, no matter how large the ego that asked for such a memorial to be built. At Arlington, then, despite the constant upkeep and decoration, it is important to remember that there are stories—of this country and its violence—that aren’t so white, so gleaming. Stories that beg to be remembered honestly.
The past is fixed, but memory is not. How we choose to remember defines how we live. When I think of eternity, I think of that: the ghost my living makes, right at this moment, and the next, and the next―as if every second a specter is slipping out of my body to live in my body’s aftermath. I want no part in outliving my own life. I will live it now as best I can.