Tuesday, May 29, 2007

R.I.P. (Part One, to be continued)

Today we buried my father and began our shiva, the Jewish formal mourning practice, typically lasting seven days from the date of burial. In our case, the timing has been odd, since Dad died on May 18, eleven days ago. Burial was delayed because of the wait for burial at Arlington, the intervening Jewish holiday of Shavuot (during which Jewish burials are not conducted), and the Memorial Day holiday weekend (during which burials are not conducted at Arlington).

A Jewish burial at Arlington National Cemetery is a distinctive and memorable experience, a blending of disparate cultures and customs, of different modes of honoring and remembering.

The day beckoned bright and warm, with a beautiful, expansive blue sky and the distinctive view of Washington's monumental skyline visible in the distance. We are told the Superintendent of Arlington picked a special spot for Dad, in an established section of the vast military cemetery, amidst other highly decorated veterans of World War II, not so far from the Administration Building where we gathered to complete the initial paperwork. They had his date of death wrong, and were able to correct that on the official record and design for his gravestone marker. They had his rank and medals right, and knew that his would bear a Star (or Shield) of David, rather than the ubiquitous crosses one sees here. Dad wanted his fellow citizens and all others to know that Jews fought and fight for their country, most particularly in the War against Hitler and Nazism.

We were helped through the formalities by a retired Sergeant-Major, an African American man of military bearing and a helpful and compassionate disposition. He first checked the readiness of the gravesite, then returned to lead our convoy to it. No horse-drawn caisson--that is reserved for more senior ranks, and requires a very long wait in any case. With war casualties from Iraq and Afghanistan, and the passing of the Greatest Generation, that can be three months nowadays. How do families cope with that?

So, we made our way by car behind the hearse to the point of roadway nearest the open plot, then made our way across the unsteady ground. The flag-draped casket was borne by military pallbearers, who moved with well-practiced, elegant precision. My brother and I, with some help from the sergeant-major, helped our mother with the difficult and emotional trek. The pallbearers stood to attention, holding the flag taut above the casket, awaiting our slow-paced arrival.

Then began the interdigitation of Jewish and military elements of the ceremony. The rabbi was an old friend of mine, dating to overlapping high school and college careers and overlapping time in Israel in the early 1970s: Gerald Serotta, longtime Hillel rabbi at George Washington University, more recently a congregational rabbi and peace and human rights activist. I have long admired him, and was delighted he was able and willing to assist with Dad's funeral. Gerry introduced the service, explained the unusual sequence of events, and read a favorite passage from Ecclesiastes. Then the military: a firing party, a poignant buglar's taps (bringing my brother, among others, to tears), the ceremonial folding of the flag and its presentation to my mother, "with the thanks of a grateful nation" for my father's service. Quite an emotional moment to live through, however often one has read about it or seen it depicted in the movies. And the note from "the Arlington lady" on behalf of the Army. The military detail marched off, to ready for the next of the 29 burials scheduled for that day at Arlington, leaving us to conclude with the Jewish part of the service.

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