Category: Richmond National Cemetery

Religious Differences in Richmond National Cemetery

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.

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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.

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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.

From Unknown to Known

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The Richmond National Cemetery is unlike any experience we have had thus far in our course. Upon entering the grounds, one can spin in circles and have a similar view in all 360 degrees. White headstone upon white headstone span out in rows in every direction. This structure gives off an oddly ambiguous ambiance as the sense of honor for the soldiers permeates the air. Each stone demonstrates a culture of respect towards those at rest by standing identically as if they are men of service in uniform. However, the atmosphere is almost unnaturally formal. During our visit last week, I experienced an eerie feeling of impersonality while I inspected the cemetery around me. While I am no expert on the proper manner of honoring soldiers that have been laid to rest, I felt empty and as if I made no connection with the neutral, indifferent graves around me.

While moving from row to row, examining each headstone, one in particular sparked my curiosity. Among a handful of graves marked “Unknown Soldier,” there existed one unlike those surrounding it. The grave had a name on it facing the direction of all of the others: “Lorenzo Barney.” However, the reverse side stated “Three Unknown Soldiers.” This brought many questions to mind about how those that run the cemetery choose to bury the soldiers and if they edit existing graves. My speculation is that one of the three was later identified, his name was added to the stone, and it was reinstalled facing the other direction. This shows how much the soldiers are honored and held in high esteem if work continues to be done to identify the large quantity of unknown soldiers. Nonetheless, the family with the newly identified soldier cannot even personalize the grave with more than an inscription. While permission to be buried in this cemetery, this appears to me to be very cold.

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