I often say I am weirdly fond of cemeteries, but I don’t feel weird about it. It’s just the sort of thing I feel I am supposed to say in order not to weird people out. I do like them, though. They are full of story and peace. I like what they tell you about people, and the way they make you reckon with things.
Take Arlington. It is our national military cemetery, it’s not exactly subtle about what it is. But there is still something distinct about being there, something powerful about being among those graves just across the overpass from the Pentagon, the only place in the county at rest. It is a striking experience. Here are bodies, just over there are the men and women who sent them off to die. The solemnity of that is undeniable. It forces you to reckon with the physical fact of your mortality, and what people are willing to face it for, and when people are willing to ask that confrontation of you.
This morning I walked past the cemetery on my way to work. I walk past it every day. I’ve gone in a few times, just to bumble around and peer at the headstones—lots of university professors, no surprise there. Usually, though, I take little notice of it, or rather, I’ve taken notice so often that it is just part of the landscape, a corner store, a library, a park. Today was All Souls Day. So I took out my earphones and let them dangle around my neck, backpack growing heavy, construction in full swing. I walked in with every intention of saying a little prayer, spending some time with the local souls in need, and continuing on my way.
But today I passed the first entrance into the university cemetery and went through the second gate, a little further down the road, across from the ROTC cadets’ headquarters. I find myself face to stone face with a memorial to the Confederate dead. It reminds me of my hometown; I hate so much that it reminds me of my hometown. The base reads, “Fate denied them their victory but crowned them with glorious immortality.” I look away to a headstone, legible, not a particularly worn grey. He was a forty-year-old private in the Confederate States Army. That’s when I realize every grave in here—even the ones that look new—has that small engraving: CSA.
There are no flowers or flags, but they are well kept. There are over a thousand of them. (1,097 to be exact, all of whom died at Charlottesville General Hospital between 1861 and 1865.) I am the only living person here, for which I give thanks, because I suddenly worry that someone will see me here and think me a visitor, not a wanderer. I came to pray for some nobodies whom I could imagine as friends’ grandmas, not servants of this country’s greatest shame. I don’t want to pray for these people. I don’t really give a shit about them. And so I am standing here faced with the fact of my own indifference, and the question of whether or not I’ve ever meant it when I pray for all souls. I take a photo. I will deal with this later. And I leave.
I get an email at 4:35pm from three deans. “As you are aware from prior emails from University leaders and coverage in the local media, bias-motivated incidents at the University have increased this fall.” They’re talking about racial slurs hurled at black students. They’re talking about homophobic graffiti on a dorm door. And those were just yesterday. I mark it unread in my inbox. I will deal with this later.
Yesterday, the KKK endorsed Trump. Today, David Duke tweeted out a burned black church, with vandalism that made itself clear: “Vote Trump.” Tonight, he is debating for the Louisiana Senate seat at a historically black college. For months, although obviously for centuries, white leaders have been conspiring to suppress black voting. “Bias-motivated incidents.” Most of the black people I see on a daily basis are custodial staff at Thomas Jefferson’s university. The classroom I teach in may once have been slaves’ quarters; that is, until they were banned from living even in the basement of the Rotunda in 1834. I cannot deal with this later, I live with it, I am surrounded by the physical fact of this, I am, in fact, atop it.
It’s less than a week now until we pretend to be rid of all this. But we aren’t. Those graves are well kept, and cadets train across the street from it. And that’s not to impugn the cadets, who are wonderful, as we all know now. It’s just remarkable what we (and you know what I mean by we) can get used to. Military training across from a memorial to traitors, to rebels, to actual enemy combatants. Do people not notice or am I just extremely late to this fight?
The latter, obviously. Everyone has their moment when they started to see things. I got a flashcard game about the presidents as a kid and I asked my mom where all the girls were; suddenly the world was full of all-male panels. It is impossible not to see things once you’ve started. I think for my generation that was Ferguson. Or at least that’s when I started noticing. Which is remarkable given that white supremacists are burning black churches around here and I am from the literal earth upon which the Civil War was fought, but here I am.
“I used to wonder how so many ‘good Bible believing’ churches sat out the civil rights movement,” Jonathan Martin said today. “2016 helps me understand it much better.” And to think I was too selfish to even pray for a conquered enemy. I’ve got to do better than that.
I don’t know how to end this, I barely knew how to write it, so here is the prayer I meant to say, matins from the Office for the Dead, 15 hours late:
My soul, give praise to the Lord;
I will praise the Lord all my days,
make music to my God while I live.
Put no trust in princes,
in mortal men in whom there is no help.
Take their breath, they return to clay
and their plans that day come to nothing.
He is happy who is helped by Jacob’s God,
whose hope is in the Lord his God,
who alone made heaven and earth,
the seas and all they contain.
Is it he who keeps faith for ever,
who is just to those who are oppressed.
It is he who gives bread to the hungry,
the Lord, who sets prisoners free,
The Lord, who gives sight to the blind,
who raises up those who are bowed down,
the Lord, who protects the stranger,
and upholds the widow and the orphan.
It is the Lord loves the just
but thwarts the path of the wicked.
The Lord will reign for ever,
Zion’s God, from age to age.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son:
and to the Holy Spirit:
as it was in the beginning, is now,
and will be forever. Amen.