Honor: a Memorial Service at Arlington Cemetery

Sometimes I’m amazed and honored 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 who was the father of one of my parishioners.

Arlington Cemetery holds a special place in our nation’s heart. I remember visiting as a 16 year old. If you had told that girl that some day she would walk in such a procession as a pastor, she simply wouldn’t have believed you. At that point in my life I did not believe that women could serve in ministry.

Co-Officiating at Arlington Cemetery

The funeral service was outside the box because I co-officiated with the cemetery chaplain. Normally the chaplain does either the whole ceremony or nothing — specifically, with Protestants the chaplain does everything, with Catholics the priest does everything. The reason is because Arlington is so tightly scheduled. Timing is key. The service can be precisely twenty minutes in length, no longer. You start five minutes ahead, to have time for the carrying-in of the remains. Twenty minutes for the service, and then you must be out. The chaplain and I met just fifteen 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 something you might not know: at Arlington 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 well-worn funeral book might become a little furled around the edges.

The chaplain and I walked down the aisle while he read from a Psalm. The cremains and flag followed us, and were placed with ceremony.

The rest of the memorial service followed our usual Presbyterian order, which my parishioner had put together for her dad using my resources. The service 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 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 brief. I lifted up the “sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life,” a phrase so eloquent it can hardly be improved upon.

The Procession to the Grave

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 now very windy. I opted to walk with the rest of the procession rather than ride. I was so glad to have the opportunity. The walk took 25 minutes. (I wore walking shoes, praise God!)

The order of the procession was: the Navy Band (20-25 pieces), sailors in formation (maybe 30 of them), the clergy and a Captain (who did the graveside honors), the horse-drawn caisson with six horses and three riders, lastly the string of cars belonging to mourners.

Even on a gray day Arlington Cemetery is beautiful. The rolling hills are studded with white markers, all mathematically precise. The trees stood black against a leaden sky and the leaves and branches 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 simply said, “you need an alb with a cincture when you do this.” A few moments later I almost lost the stole altogether, so then I clamped my hands down to hold it by my sides.

At the graveside, a single bugler played taps. Next was a ceremony to unfold the flag. I had never seen this so close up. The ceremony required five full minutes as eight men executed absolutely crisp movements. With the flag held open, a gun saluted. Then they refolded the flag and presented it to the widow. A bagpiper, standing a little way off, concluded the ceremony. A bagpiper playing on a windy hill in a cemetery on a gray day is an exceedingly mournful sound.

Rest in peace, Captain Wm Holden. May your memory be a blessing, and may the Lord comfort all those who mourn.


2 responses to “Honor: a Memorial Service at Arlington Cemetery”

  1. Such fun to hear from a retired Army colonel, you have to love the Internet and Google alerts! Thanks for stopping by, even those of you who never comment, I’m glad you’re out there.

  2. As a retired Army colonel, once a WAC, and a one time US Navy LTjg (a very junior officer), as a regular attendee at military funerals of friends and fellow veterans, I read your vivid description with deep appreciation. I am moved by your description and the reverence of your words honoring Captain Holden and his family. Thank you.

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