I haven’t sung the National Anthem since we went into Cambodia. I’ll stand for it if I’m in a crowd—I’m not looking for fights. I absolutely won’t say the Pledge of Allegiance. The republic for which the flag stands has my whole (if conflicted and frustrated) loyalty, but I won’t pledge anything to a piece of cloth. And I am not a big fan of American Exceptionalism when it’s not backed up by really, really good behavior.
But I am a person who appreciates and cares deeply about Things Done Right. I’ve (sort of) joked for years that the reason I’m an Episcopalian is that the Book of Common Prayer has the best funeral service in the (Christian) business—clean, dignified, beautifully and movingly phrased, properly focused.
Very often—most often, in fact—we live in a culture that provides grossly inadequate death rites. The rites happen in a big hurry after the death itself, and then everyone is expected to pick up and toddle on, keeping our grief for our grief group, but otherwise not bothering the rest of the world or asking it to understand that universe-rending changes have occurred for us.
These issues came together pretty shatteringly for me this last week. Our god-son was killed by an IED in Afghanistan a week ago. 23. Beautiful and large-hearted. You can read about him here, if you’re so inclined: http://www.thefastertimes.com/politics/2012/01/31/the-tragedy-and-grace-of-sgt-william-stacey/
or go to the ABC news site and click on last week’s Person of the Week.
His parents teach in Seattle. All military personnel who die abroad are brought home via the Air Force base in Dover, DE, 45 minutes down the road from here. So we went down to meet the body of our god-son. You’ve probably seen some version of what happens in a movie. What you may not know is that every body that comes home is treated with the same respect and care that you’ve seen in those movies. And unless you’ve had to do this thing, you don’t know about the rest of it. You will not have seen the meticulously, graciously appointed waiting center where families gather at all times of the day and night and in all weathers, or how thoughtfully and comprehensively the center is equipped. You won’t have seen the ferociously fresh-shaved faces of the Marines who are there to take care of those families. You will not have watched a chaplain very carefully avoid inserting anything of his own denomination into the conversation so that you are clear that he is there to do or be whatever you need him to do or be as a reflection of grace. You will not have had the Marine colonel who is up in the middle of the night to meet the body get down on one knee and take your hands in his to tell you how much he grieves with you. You will not have watched the troop slow-march from the far end of the tarmac, or seen the three Marines who flew with the body stand at anguished attention as it is lowered and moved, or listened to the heart-battering silence that rises even above the sound of the jets idling engines as they carry the draped coffin across to the waiting mortuary truck. You will not have seen beauty and terror woven together in the night quite like this. But you should know. We should all know.
And my long moratorium on the national anthem is over. Not that I have changed my opinion about expressions of nationalism, but Will probably sang it loud and proud.