The uniformity of Richmond National Cemetery lends itself to the study of difference. Like a troop of soldiers at attention, the headstones stand upright in straight lines that stretch out in all directions. With so many graves looking so similar, the smallest, minutest differences seem to stand out the most.
The gravestone of Union soldier Tom Cheaton exemplifies this phenomenon. In many ways, this stone very much fits in with the rest of the cemetery. It is made of solid, bright marble and stands about mid-thigh high. Like the hundreds of others surrounding it, it is straight on the edges and gently curved on top. The same stiff uppercase lettering spells out his name and date of death in the center the stone.
Most graves in the cemetery have a circled cross at the top of the stone above the name, signifying the Christian faith. Some notable graves have different religious symbols, such as the Jewish Star of David or Islamic crescent moon. But the Cheaton stone has no such symbol. Even the graves of the unknown soldiers, where five or six people are often buried together, are marked by default with a cross. While it is possible that Tom’s faith traditions may simply have been unknown at the time of his funeral, it still seems unlikely that the military would have made the decision to purposefully omit the cross from his stone, especially when soldiers that no one could name at the time of their deaths were essentially designated Christian after death.
This means that either Tom or his loved ones were the ones to finalize the headstone design. In this case, the lack of religious iconography tells a more intricate story than the graves that are more overt in their depiction. When burying Tom Cheaton, someone must have specifically requested that his headstone not be adorned with any religious iconography. This suggests he felt strongly enough about his own spiritual convictions (or the lack thereof) to break tradition of the US military and set his grave apart from the rest in the cemetery.
The silences of the Cheaton grave speak to the American ideal of Christianity as the expected normal faith tradition, the culture of homogeny in national battlefields, and the power of personal petitions that create differences in them.