Sacredness transcends boundaries of religion and faith. National shrines can bring about the same shared sense of spiritual reverence and sacrifice. Arlington National Cemetery is one such place.
Last Friday, I attended a funeral service for a man who earned a Bronze Star and Purple Heart in Vietnam, then went on to become a soft spoken leader among foreign correspondents.
Solemn dignity pervades the grounds, despite its encasement in one of the world's most powerful metropolitan areas. We drove from the understated modern Administration Building in a line to the gravesite. There the chaplain briefly delivered a warm remembrance bracketed by appropriate New and Old testament readings. Soldiers held a flag over the grave, folded it, and presented it to his wife. The honor guard, standing about 50 yards away, fired three times, and then a Marine delivered a perfect rendition of Taps.
As they left, the soldiers marched away in perfect step, their boots softly clacking on the pavement in unison.
Everything in this sacred ritual reinforced that the veteran now joined an eternal brotherhood of Americans who served and sacrificed.
Before the service, I took about an hour to walk the grounds. Washington rarely has Goldilocks days for walking; this was one.
In some areas, officers of high rank in all services got clustered together. Generals and admirals on one hillside had their own bluff. In other parts, however, one could see an admiral's final resting place positioned beside a non commissioned officer.
The dignity of the place even touched the large groups of middle school children touring the grounds in easily identifiable school tour shirts. All of them looked ready to burst with childlike energy and enthusiasm, but the place and its air of respect kept them as quiet as possible.
What struck me the most about Arlington was perfection. Washington DC does not always pay strict attention to aesthetics and detail. For example, temporary fences and road barriers ring the White House, interrupting the sublime beauty of the place. Many areas in the capital have little touches of shoddiness. Not the Arlington National Cemetery. Almost everything reflects and effort to honor the fallen in the most immaculate way possible.
Except . . .
the centerpiece of the grounds.
Arlington National Cemetery surrounds the former house and grounds of Robert E. Lee. Lee spent a lifetime literally and figuratively paying for the misdeeds and shenanigans of generations of Virginia's least favorite black sheep family. His father, "Light Horse" Harry Lee, served courageously in the Revolution. He also embraced a number of get rich quick schemes, blasted the popular Thomas Jefferson in one of his books, and had to flee to the Caribbean to escape creditors.
Robert E. Lee led a spartan and disciplined life as he sought to pay family debts and establish his own independent reputation. He impressed many while serving in the Mexican War, but grew frustrated trying to raise a family on an army salary. Eventually his thrift and fortitude enabled him to buy the mansion which still sits atop the hill in the center of Arlington.
He could only enjoy it a few short years before the onset of the Civil War. His front porch offers a commanding view of the national capital and the grounds surrounding his home would likely have been productive. The Greek Revival portico gives the illusion of grandiosity to a house with an otherwise unassuming size.
Lee looked forward to spending his middle age watching over his home, enjoying the company of his family and his cat Tom. War intervened. Lee turned down the offer of field command of all Union forces to serve in the military of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Despite mixed feelings about secession and opposition to slavery, Lee enlisted to fight what he saw as the federal invasion of his state.
Federal forces soon occupied the house; the only Lee remaining home was Tom. Government officials deemed that their enemy's home deserved to lie at the center of the human toll tallied by the cause Lee served. Indeed the graves of fallen soldiers and officers come within 10 yards of the house itself.
The house today, officially known as the Robert E. Lee Memorial, contrasts sharply with the rest of the grounds. It has the appearance of genteel poverty compared to the meticulously maintained surroundings. Lee would be surprised to see his home with peeling paint and ramshackle wooden stairs and walkways surrounding his front door. The gardens remain beautiful, but maintenance of the house itself appears to be an afterthought.
Lee still touches a nerve in American history while evading understanding. He fought to defend secession, yet opposed it. His country vowed to continue slavery, yet he criticized the institution. Other leading Virginia military luminaries, like "Stonewall" Jackson and Jubal Early, shared Lee's concerns, yet fought anyway. Historians and their students still have difficulty sifting through the complexity of it. Perhaps that is why Lee's home and memorial have fallen into such rough shape.
Yet even this forms part of the story of America that Arlington tells, a story still unfolding.