Friday, April 16, 2010

Grave Offerings at Arlington

My least favorite investigative reporter, Mark Benjamin, has published another frantic article about Arlington National Cemetery over at Salon. As ever, the shrillness of his writing and the shallowness of his inquiry sets my teeth on edge, but I suppose I must keep reading him if I hope to stay current on the cemetery news.

As far as I can tell, Benjamin's purpose in this new article is to whine about not receiving enough credit from the AP for his role in changing Arlington's policies on grave offerings. Last summer, Benjamin wrote a thoughtless piece about mementos left on graves being "trashed" by callous staff members. Though Arlington's policy clearly stated that items left on graves would be removed after a few days, Benjamin implied that anything less than the perpetual preservation of all grave offerings was an affront to the dignity of the soldiers buried at Arlington and a slap in the face to their grieving family members. The article was long on outrage and short on consideration of the purpose of grave offerings, public vs. private meaning, or the cycle of decay as a legitimate part of death and dying. My full critique of that article is here, though I will reprint an excerpt below the fold.

Now, the Army has embarked on a new program to preserve the mementos left on graves in section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery, where many of the dead from Iraq and Afghanistan are buried. Benjamin's new article is not really about the policy change — it is about the fact that the AP did not give him credit for spurring the change. Benjamin spends the article calling editors and cemetery officials, "wondering why the AP had omitted Salon's earlier reporting in its feature on Arlington's new Section 60 policy." 

Benjamin's articles make much more sense to me now that I have read Jessica Mitford's The American Way of Death. Like Mr. August Chelini, the man who sued an embalmer when he found that his mother's body had decayed a year and a half after her death, Benjamin believes that preservation of the ephemeral is both possible and desirable. According to Mitford, it is a peculiarly American way of approaching death and its trappings. It makes me think of the sadness I felt as a child when my siblings and I would buy glo-sticks at fireworks shows. We would put them in the freezer to last just a bit longer, but the knowledge that they would die made it difficult for me to enjoy them while they lasted.

What follows is part of my essay from July 17, 2009:

Mark Benjamin [of Salon] writes in high dudgeon about personal artifacts being "trashed" at Arlington, rather than catalogued and preserved as they are at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial:
The sun was out after several days of rain . . . Left out in the rain to rot were crayon drawings by children who had lost a parent, photographs of soldiers with their babies, painted portraits and thank-you notes from grade-school kids to fallen soldiers they had never known. Colors of artworks ran together. Photos were blurred and wilted. Poems and letters were illegible wads of wet paper. A worker in a brown uniform wandered among the graves, blasting the headstones with a power washer without regard to what was left of the mementos -- or the obviously uncomfortable mourners looking on. Some items got further soaked. The worker blasted others across the grass. Many of them would end up in a black trash bin in the cemetery's service area.
Benjamin goes on to interview family members who are "distraught" to discover that their grave offerings are destroyed after they are collected during regular cemetery maintenance. He is shocked at the paltry collection of artifacts preserved by cemetery staff — medals, uniforms, children's drawings — which pales in comparison to the vast collection of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. "What war stories had been lost forever? What words from a father to a son or wife to a husband were sitting in some landfill? What meaningful personal artifacts had been relegated to the Arlington trash bin?"

Benjamin has two major objections: the artifacts are treated disrespectfully and they are not being preserved for posterity. The first seems quite overblown — he admits that he visited after several days of heavy rain and the "disrespect" he witnesses seems to consist mainly of soggy letters that have blown about. Does he want Arlington to build a dome? And yes, items left at graves are often removed and discarded in order to keep the cemetery uncluttered. I don't think that this comes as a surprise to anyone. The word "trashed" seems harsh, but I haven't read anything that suggests to me that the Arlington staff has treated grave offerings with callous disregard.

The second complaint is more interesting to me. As an historian, I'd love to see every artifact ever created preserved, but that's a very selfish impulse.

I started out on Benjamin's side, but his over-the-top indignation lost me by the end of the article. His major complaint is that Arlington's collection policies are not the same as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial's. Of course they aren't. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial's policy of collecting, cataloguing, and preserving every photograph, flower, and teddy bear left by visitors is extraordinary, not routine. The collection is vast and growing and is already a valuable resource for scholars.

Benjamin laments that no similar collection exists at Arlington, but that strikes me as an unreasonable standard. No cemetery saves all of the grave offerings — how could it? Set aside the logistics of collecting artifacts from Arlington's 600+ acres vs. the VVM's 500 linear feet, set aside the logistics of cataloging and preserving all of those tons of artifacts, set aside the fact that Arlington has never made a commitment to building a collection (in fact, they ask people not to leave items other than flowers). Should Arlington save the offerings? I'm not so sure.

What is the function of a grave offering? Is it meant for the historian's eye? Or does the historian commit an act of violence merely by gazing? Does it do its work in an archive? Or is it the exchange between the bereaved and the beloved that matters?

As historians, we want to know everything, read everything, and speak for others. We want to dig below the surface, expose everything to the light, claim understanding. It is very hard for us to accept the sacredness of silence and the utility of decay. I would like nothing better than to dig up every body in the slave section of the Newport Common Burying Ground and count the beads, examine the bones, analyze the offerings. What stories I could tell! But I have accepted that those offerings are not for me. It's why I don't support the idea that gravestones should be removed from cemeteries in order to preserve the art — decay is part of the life of that object and it can never mean the same thing in a museum as it did on a hill overlooking the harbor.

Why should we save a letter left on a soldier's grave? Why is it disrespectful to let it dissolve in the rain, soak into the soil, or fly away in the wind?

Benjamin's article reminded me of a seminar I attended when I was in high school at a local historical society. A preservationist from the SPNEA was speaking about preservation techniques for textiles and furniture to an audience of amateurs with attics full of family relics. The preservationist's specialty was quilts, and her eyes widened with wonder when one elderly woman brought forward an ancient quilt that had passed from generation to generation in her family. It was a beautiful quilt — intricate, colorful, and very, very old by quilt standards. When the woman started talking about how their family uses the quilt for their annual family picnic, the preservationist's eyes just about fell out of her head. There was a lot of stammering about wrapping it mylar and NEVER EVER taking outside ever again. The woman looked at the preservationist like she was crazy and said something along the lines of, "everyone in my family for eight generations has sat on this quilt, and you'd better believe it's going to see nine and ten."

What is the value of a quilt? Should it be protected from moths and studied by professors? Or should it decay with use by a family that values it for what it means to them, not for what it tells us about the social and cultural history of quilting?

I'm a professional scholar of material culture. I love an old quilt. I love an old letter. If I had a box full of grave offerings from the 18th century, I'd faint with delight. But I'm not troubled by the treatment of artifacts at Arlington as described in the Salon article. The artifacts are not preserved, but they seem not to be mistreated. What's wrong with that?

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