I like cemeteries. I like walking through the rows to see if I recognize any surnames, and wonder if they’re of the same family tree as the people I know of the same surname. I marvel at the years of birth and death and the beautiful iconography carved into the marble or limestone gave markers. People leave such interesting things at gravesites, too. Wreathes and flowers of course, and at this time of year, poppies on the graves of those who have served. Sometimes pebbles on Jewish graves. Sometimes other decorations, sometimes nothing at all, as if the person who lies is not visited by anyone.
Last week, I went to a funeral for a cousin’s father, in London Ontario. The cemetery where he was laid to rest is a huge old cemetery. There are family crypts and outdoor mausoleums, and of course, there is a Field of Honour. After the graveside service that brought me to this cemetery was complete, I walked back to the field of honour. The Cross of Sacrifice stood at the far end, overlooking all the identical graves held therein. I didn’t walk the length of the field, but on the base of the monument would have been the same inscription as all Crosses of Sacrifice: “Their names liveth for evermore”
I like how that inscription and the presence of the Cross draws together all Canadians who rest at those locations. These are OUR veterans, who lived and served and died. Of course, the Cross of Sacrifice isn’t at every cemetery that contains the remains of Canadian service members – there have to be a certain number of them, which is why they are often gathered into the field of honour in the shadow of the Cross of Sacrifice.
But you know, seeing the uniform rows of white stones always feels overwhelming, whether it’s 50 or 60 tucked into municipal cemeteries around Canada, or the thousands in the Canadian Military Cemetery in Ottawa, or the hundreds of thousands in the biggest cemeteries in France. The number in the cemetery in London was perhaps in the hundreds, but it is still humbling to see them. It’s likely around the same number, maybe fewer, as lie at the Field of Honour at Holy Sepulcher cemetery in Burlington, where my grandparents and other family members are buried. I’ve been to big cemeteries before, and the graves on the rolling hills, different sizes and shapes and colours, doesn’t feel as crushing as suddenly getting a better appreciation about what those pictographs we’ve seen our whole lives – in history classes or military non-fiction in a bookstore, or in exhibits in the Commonwealth War Museums. The world is full of pictograms that are hard to appreciate. One white cross represents x number of people who died. That’s definitely a lot of little white crosses. But making the leap from pictograms to actual people is difficult to master. Is that a Skydome full? What exactly does 1% of the population look like? My mind says “a lot” and that’s a far as I can process it. I’ve never been a numbers person. Then I went to France and Belgium and visited cemeteries with 1:1 crosses (plus mass graves), and I had a waaaay better appreciation for what that number looked like, and even then, I wasn’t seeing the whole picture – only those contained in whatever cemetery we were visiting at any given time. I looked at it in rows of crosses, neatly fanned out from the Cross of Sacrifice, over and over and over. I wanted to cry every time we walked through the gates to another cemetery. Seeing the rows of identical white headstones is always a kick to the feels; moreso in the Canadian, French, and German cemeteries in France and Belgium. Some of the graves were for unidentified remains, some were mass graves for unidentified body parts found in the battlefields. Names were carved into massive memorials at Menin gate and Vimy Ridge. But actually researching some of the names on a grave marker is different. It makes it personal, and I understand why the kids we took on that trip to the WW1 Canadian battlefields had to research a soldier who died there and who’s name is on a memorial or a gravestone. They delivered their presentations as close as they could to the person’s name, and some took a charcoal rubbing of the gravestone. And now, when I take a friend of mine, who is a Veteran himself, to do graveside visits to Canadian Forces members, it feels more personal to know something about those we’re visiting. I like that I read a bit about the CAF member, and my friend whispers “Thank you for your service” and places a flag in front of their grave. Covid has made it so we haven’t been able to do this for the last two years, and I miss that part of my Remembrance fortnight.
When I think about all this, it’s easy to trick yourself into thinking that Remembrance day is only about veterans of long-ago wars. On a cadet trip several years ago, we went to CFB Petawawa. A friend and I found, mostly by accident, a memorial marker for the brother of a man we both knew. We certainly knew he had lost a brother in Afghanistan, but remembering these types of veterans for some reason, feels like it gets lost in the swell of gratitude for World War veterans.
So this year, I’m going to make sure that my gratitude encompasses all who have served, whether in wartime or peacetime, in wars long ago, or presently.