The Unknown Soldier

The tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the National War Memorial in Ottawa
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the National War Memorial, Ottawa

Holding vigil has been a part of my life forever. When I was young, it was the time when, after a family member died, you circled the wagons to mourn together. Others arrived to pay their respects, we celebrated a life passed, and at the end of the vigil period, we moved on, having taken the time to contemplate the best of the recently departed, and how we can emulate the good stuff they modeled in our own lives.

There are candlelight vigils at highschools or public spaces for those who die prematurely (by someone else’s hand, or sometimes by their own), attended by their familial and social circles. But also attended by those who just feel bereft of something that they can’t quite identify.

Halloween marks the vigil of the Feast of All Saints, and the start of the Allhallowtide triduum. At this particular vigil, when not feral from the fun-size treats, we can use this time of year to think about the supernatural. There are many that believe that the barrier between the mortal world and the afterlife are thinned at Halloween, which makes it a particularly spiritual time – not just for RC kids like me, but a multitude of others as well. It doesn’t matter what your God looks like, death comes to everyone. So at Halloween, when you can, even in your own mind, reach across that line to be close to those who’ve already died, it is a comfort to the loss-shaped-hole in your universe. When I think about this through the lens of the larger Remembrance season coming up to November 11th, The Unknown Soldier often speaks loudest.

There were over half a million soldiers from the British Commonwealth who were not (at the time of the selection of the Unknown Soldier) identified. So they chose and exhumed three bodies, known only to God. One  at random was chosen to be the embodiment of the Unknown Soldier. I read a description a few years ago that said that it was the intention that anyone could believe that the unknown soldier was *their* soldier. That unknown man could very well be a lost husband, Father, brother, or son. This part never quite occurred to me. I accepted that this was a soldier who provided a proxy for a whole nation to mourn the losses of a war, when the grave sites of loved ones were so far away. He would be a place for a nation to place their grief when you were there to despair the enormity of the wars. But it never occurred to me that this unknown soldier could provide closure that perhaps their loved one wasn’t so far away anymore.

Both Child (in high school), and my gentleman associate (in college) took history courses wherein they studied the British Expeditionary Forces and the Canadian Forces in the great wars. Their course materials didn’t specifically talk about the Unknown Soldier, but there were inconceivable numbers of soldiers in the European theatre, the wounded, the dead, all grouped into a cadigan like “the Canadians” or “The Alllied forces”. All nameless, all ageless. Without rank or appointment. All anonymous masses of uniforms. Further stripped of their individuality by pictograms –  one army helmet equals 100 dead or wounded. All of them, it seems, the Unknown Soldier.

During Allhallowstide, May those who have no grave site at which to mourn find comfort by the side of the Unknown Soldier.

Extra Credit:

 Westminster Abbey – The Unknown Soldier

How Canadians embraced their Unknown Soldier

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