LONDON — I have enjoyed Memorial Day as the holiday marking summer's start my whole life. I have even visited Arlington Cemetery occasionally during my five years living in Washington, D.C. Yet it was not until my recent visit to the Madingley Cemetery in Cambridge, England, that Memorial Day became meaningful to me for the reasons it was instituted.
As I walked among the 3,811 graves, I could not escape the solemn fact that these were the boys who never made it home. Their sacrifice was made patently obvious by being buried on foreign soil. I wondered: How many anxious wives, how many worried fathers, heartbroken mothers and lonely siblings did these graves represent?
My own experience with death causes me to always think of the family involved. One death, especially if premature, multiplies pain into dozens if not hundreds of lives, sometimes rippling its way across generations. The sacrifice of these soldiers was the sacrifice of all who never got to say goodbye.
I was moved by the graves' presence but also by the coordinated care with which the graves were kept. For the holiday, each had a small American and Union Jack flag to mark the spot. The wreaths laid against the wall of the missing included those from various U.S. military units, the Sons of the American Revolution, the American Embassy, the European Command and the Royal Air Force.
Nearly half of the graves were taken up by those in the army who died from accidents or disease endemic to active military service, the other half were shot-down airmen defending the British Isles from the skies. Those laying side by side in perfect, semicircle rows were from different units, branches and often died years apart — a tribute to the fact that the dead were first temporarily buried there, then exhumed en mass as part of the large effort to allow next of kin to determine where they wanted the body interred (in the U.S. or its temporary, foreign locale) and thereafter reburied at random.
I was surprised to learn that Cambridge was one of 24 foreign-soil cemeteries worldwide, where 124,909 U.S. war victims are buried. (Read this article for a touching Dutch cemetery tradition of local grave adoption.)
As I left near the 5 p.m. closing time, I was warmed by the familiar strains of "Sweet Hour of Prayer" played from the commemorative chapel's loudspeakers, followed by other American hymns. In this place so far from home, I was grateful to know that those fellow Americans buried here were faithfully remembered by those for whom their lives were given.
Lorianne Updike Toler is a constitutional legal historian living in London. She received her law degree from BYU and her master's from Oxford. She currently maintains two blogs, amormonatoxford.blogspot.com and constitutionathomeandabroad.blogspot.com
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