Richmond National Cemetery—methodical, uniformed, subdued. Puzzling. Identity seems fickle in this federal burying ground. Along the single road leading into the cemetery, two headstones, side-by-side, form the start (or the end?) of one of the many rigid rows. Both are designated for unknown soldiers. However, there are surprising stylistic differences to these two unknown burials where one expects none.
The first has the designation nestled within an indented shield—proclaiming the soldiers’ allegiance, or perhaps eternal belonging, to the army. In a sense, the shield consumes the soldiers’ identities—even in death, they belong within the shield and within the walls of a soldier’s cemetery. The material of the headstone is consistent with the others, except for its pronounced striations. The pattern elicits a visual sense of weathering, the kind experienced in war. Immediately upon view, this tombstone conditions the minds of the passerby to envision the arduous experience of battle and the continuous struggle for recognition.
The next tombstone reads, “Three Unknown U.S. Soldiers.” The combination of the additional attribute of United States and the corresponding cross on top is no accident—after all, “God bless the U.S.A.” The United States, as a nation, is necessarily entwined with religion despite the rise of secularity. This tombstone, then, pronounces these three American soldiers’ ultimate affiliation with God. The marble used to construct this stone is more pristine, more homogenous, more united.
These two headstones are temporally and spatially close to each other, yet they deliver divergent messages. Nonetheless, they have a known final place despite being “unknown.” In the Richmond National Cemetery, anonymity prevails (without the reference records, even the named stones seem nameless.) In spite of that, each stone commands a known plot in a nationally recognized space.