Are the Words Solemnity and Reverence Outmoded Today?
Evelyn Waugh in The Loved One (novel and movie) turned death and the mortuary "business" in Los Angeles into his subject for a bitter and mocking satire. Maybe it takes someone from Southern California to appreciate how biting and humorous his depictions of So Cal are. Maybe someone needs to have wandered in Forest Lawn with its kitsch to "get" Whispering Glades Memorial Park with its "loved ones." Or maybe it takes being a So Cal native, who eagerly left the lower half of the state, to know how "ahead" that region always has been in the USA. I suspect this goes for pet cemeteries, which Waugh calls in his satiric novel, "The Happier Hunting Ground," and where his British-born protagonist works.
But today I will leave the satiric and irreverent to write of a place characterized by solemnity and reverence. At Arlington National Cemetery these are not outmoded words. A year ago, on January 6th, 2021, was a day that will live in our history like 9-11, as horrific and not to be forgotten. Yet this January 6th, 2022, I attended the funeral of Lt. General William Earl Brown.
His daughter had read my posting last week and contacted me. Although the reception had been cancelled because of the latest Covid variant, I learned that we could attend the ceremony. This meant that I and husband Mike, and our daughter Michelle in her army uniform, were there for a funeral that included the highest honors for an officer of William Earl Brown's rank.
I will not describe it all, only say this. Nothing was missing except a fly-over of fighters from Andrews AFB, to honor a pilot who flew 225 missions in two wars. Yet airplanes were taking off from Reagan National; and during the ceremony at the burial site, a flock of geese flew over. Then at the very end, four of them returned in formation. A woman in black attire near me commented, "That has meaning," referring to the four geese passing over head. I mention this because solemnity prevailed in dress on Thursday. This in contrast to a funeral attended months ago, where I looked outmoded in black among older and younger women in sleeveless sundresses, their arms flapping as if torn awnings in the wind. Someone pointed out later to me that it was no longer "correct" to wear black to a funeral. Really? That was not true on Thursday, and it wasn't because of the weather.
The Honor Guard detachment at Fort Myer exudes a dignity that must be seen to be felt. To watch these soldiers of the historic old guard, fold a flag with precision, then have it presented to the widow, Gloria Brown, is an image I will remember. The assembled army personnel at the first stop with the casket & caisson & horses, and later the Air Force band on the grass near the canopy and casket, were all soldiers and airmen without coats, and each was standing solemn and still on a cold January afternoon. This image will remain with me, too. Most of all I felt then and feel now, a deep gratitude for having the hollow in my heart filled because of a solemn and reverent ceremony, one marked by tradition and hallowed respect.
On the three-hour drive home, I found solace in knowing that William Earl Brown was not alive the year before on January 6th, to witness that infamous day across the Potomac in Washington, D.C.
Next week: Raymond Carver, A Writer's Life, a book that Gloria and Earl Brown gave me.
Along with The Loved One, the movie Short Cuts, made of Carver short stories, is one to see.