When it began, I knew three things about the man at the center of it all. First, his name was James. Second, he was a veteran. Third, he was dead.
There is usually a decent amount of time to prepare for these sorts of things but I had little more than one day and not much to go on. The call for assistance from a chaplain friend of mine was quick and simple, “Can you do a funeral tomorrow?” In recent days, I had often asked for the help of other chaplains and that help had been prompt and plentiful. Time to reciprocate.
James died in an elderly care facility in a nearby town. He was alone and nearly unknown. As I called around trying to find information about him that I could draw upon for the service the next day, I heard words like “vagrant”, “homeless”, “no family”, etc. Eventually, I reached the funeral home director. He verified that James was a veteran, though no one could be sure of the time period in which he had served. Most likely he was a Vietnam vet. He could have taken the easy road and opted for a standard burial, but this funeral director, with nothing to gain save the satisfaction of having done his civic duty, saw the need to honor one of our nations fallen heroes and arranged for a military funeral in a national cemetery. A graveside service was scheduled for the following morning at the Beaufort National Cemetery in Beaufort, South Carolina.
The weather was nice and my wife had the morning free, so we made a drive of it. It’s not far, but it gave us some good conversation time. We drove through the famous marshes of coastal Georgia, under huge live oaks covered with the beautiful Spanish moss that defines the view in this region. This is a heavy year for acorns, so we couldn’t avoid an occasional ping as our car came under assault by the trees. The sun was deceptively bright, masking the chill air outside the car. There was much to think about, and talk about. The bulk of our conversation rested on James. What can you say about a homeless man who died alone and was known by almost no one? The closer we got to the cemetery, the greater the struggle to think of something appropriate to say. There were sure to be mourners and family members and all manner of people present to bid their final farewell to a friend, husband, or father. And I had nothing to say to them. It was unfamiliar territory for this small time preacher and not a little intimidating.
We arrived at the cemetery a bit ahead of schedule and made our way to the appropriate graveside. The sun came through the large oak trees in small patches offering no escape from the crisp morning air. Once all the attendees arrived we had quite a crowd; me, my wife, and the funeral director. No friends, no family, no mourners, no co-workers or acquaintances; just the three of us standing in the shadows listening to the acorns rain down on the gravesites and headstones that surrounded us. Cemetery workers had interred James before we arrived and were just putting the final touches on the site. A little dirt here, a tamping there, even adjacent headstones were readjusted and straightened to ensure that the look and feel of a national cemetery was maintained. They worked quietly and with great reverence for the fallen, as though the President himself might just drop by to pay his respects. To those four workers, this was not just a burial. This was the burial of a veteran of the United States Military.
As we stood there waiting and watching with acorns dropping like a light rain, I couldn’t help looking around at some of the other headstones. Men and women representing just about every period of American history were there. The graves said things like, “Gone Fishing” and “Beloved Husband”, each wanting to be remembered for something special to them. The head stones were embossed with Christian crosses, Jewish stars, other religious symbols, or a simple name and date. And each represented a unique American with a unique history. Only one thing was common to all…they had served their country. Somewhere during those moments, I found what I was looking for.
This morning we buried a man who had died alone. There were no relatives in attendance, but there was family all around. In the end, James was surrounded by his military family. His family includes soldiers from the Union and the Confederacy, Medal of Honor recipients, Buffalo Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Merchant Marines, Airmen, Soldiers, Officers, and Enlisted Men from all walks of life. Americans all.
His name was James and he was a veteran. Among the acorns and headstones, he lies with family.