Bidding Farewell to Our Fallen Soldiers – My Memories at Arlington National Cemetery
By Heide B. Malhotra
Courtesy of The Epoch Times
May 16, 2005
On May 30th the United States will honor those who served our country, who gave their lives that the worlds’ citizens may enjoy all fundamental rights, live in freedom, have freedom of speech, and retain freedom of association.
More than 260,000 of those who served our country with honor are buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Around four million people visit the cemetery annually. Many come to pay respect to those who gave their lives for our nation or to visit the graveside of family members or friends, but there are also those who bid farewell at a funeral to one who no longer will open his/her eyes in the morning. I did so for my close friend Colonel Butler, who served in World War II, two Thursdays ago.
The day of Colonel Butler’s burial at the Arlington National Cemetery drew closer and the knowledge that the last farewell was imminent saddened my heart, as well as those of his family and friends. But, what lifted our spirit was the thought of the times we spent together, the laughter, and the good and sad times. We remembered the few hours we spent last Christmas Eve when he ate with gusto the chocolate cake. He did have a sweet tooth and just pushed aside how it could affect him. We had fun that evening.
Then came the phone call telling us that Walter was coming home under the care of hospice and he wanted to say goodbye to us. We visited, stayed a little while at his bedside, held his hand and said goodbye, knowing that he could hear us and that this was the last time we would see him alive. What made it easier was that his family was with him, his wife was right beside him and made sure that he was comfortable, his son had come home from Iraq and told him that he loved him, his daughters and son-in-laws drifted in and out of the room and his grandchildren were running around, all letting him know that they were here and they were with him to the very last. He knew he was not alone and was loved dearly and would be missed sorely.
The burial date came on a beautiful sunny day with a refreshing breeze. Arlington National Cemetery is an impressive expanse, aesthetically arranged and beautifully landscaped. The gently sloping hills, the beautiful manicured trees, the many white crosses make the visitor feel at home and comfortable among the nation’s most honored departed veterans and citizens. The only thing that marred the beauty was the thought of the last farewell. The beauty around me did not stop that fluttering in my stomach, the slight heartache and the distinctive feel of sadness from those mourning their loved ones.
We arrived at the Administrative Building and mingled with those mourning Walter. We met, though under sad circumstances, friends we had not seen for quite a while and those we just met a few weeks ago at Walter’s funeral service. There was joy in seeing each other and sadness at the loss.
We found that military funerals are arranged very methodically, but exude both a feel of grandeur and of sedateness, which gives the mourner just what he or she needs to find closure.
It was a full-honors funeral. This meant a caisson (horse drawn buggy), a body bearers team of eight, a color guard, flag bearers, a firing party, a bugler, the Air Force Ceremonial Brass Band, the Arlington Lady (representing the Chief of Staff of the USAF) and the escort for the Arlington Lady.
It was time to get to the point where the formal funeral procession started. We all got into the cars and followed the hearse from the funeral home to a circle, about 10 minutes walk from the graveside. We all left the cars and stood at attention while the casket was transferred from the hearse to the caisson. It was fascinating to see the precision of the footsteps of the casket bearers. They moved away from the hearse, one step forward, one step to the side, one step forward…, until they were in line with the caisson. Then they did a ¼ turn until they were facing the casket. Now they moved towards the caisson and placed the casket on the caisson.
The formal funeral procession got underway. First came the band, then the marching unit and the caisson. About 24 paces behind the caisson walked the priest, followed by the family, friends and then the cars.
At the graveside, the body bearers removed the casket from the caisson, made a five-step formal turn and then carried the casket to the graveside. Next came the seating of the family, while all others stood on the side or behind the family. On the left, behind the grave was the band, the flag bearers and the firing party. Further off to the left was the lone bugler waiting to sound his horn for the last farewell. The Arlington lady and her escort stood gracefully to the left of the graveside.
The priest held the graveside service. His words soothed the heartache of the mourners and made them remember the wonderful things Walter did for others, the little smile that lit up his eyes, his great potato salad and his insatiable hunger for sweets.
After the priest’s concluding words everyone stood at attention. The flags were raised and one heard the three rifle volleys by the seven riflemen. Then the bugler played Taps, the music that was officially recognized by the U.S. Army in 1874 and became a standard for military funeral ceremonies in 1891. What beautiful music! I saw tears welling up in everyone’s eyes.
It was time for the folding of the flag. The body bearers folded it precisely, smoothly, in a specific rhythm and without a single misstep. The officer in charge (OIC) then presented the flag to Pat, Walter’s wife. He bent his knees to be at same height as Pat and said, “This flag is presented on behalf of a grateful nation as a token of our appreciation for the honorable and faithful service rendered by your loved one.” Immediately after, the Arlington lady offered her condolences by bending down to be at the same height as Pat.
The official ceremonial guards, band and body bearers left to return to their next duties. The OIC remained at attention on one side of the casket. Before leaving, family and friends said their last goodbyes, leaving flowers on the casket.
This is the first funeral I had attended in years, and it will remain in my memory for years to come. I know deep in my heart that this is how Walter envisioned his last farewell to this world and his goodbye to his loved ones and friends.
BUTLER, WALTER J
- COL US AIR FORCE
- PFC US MARINE CORPS
- WORLD WAR II
- DATE OF BIRTH: 11/06/1927
- DATE OF DEATH: 03/29/2005
- BURIED AT: SECTION 66 SITE 1238
ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY
Reviewed by: Michael Howard