The Homecoming

The body bearers hoisted the last casket shoulder high until the song was done, then eased it onto a catafalque, lifted away its flag, pulled the edges tight, and held it there as a Navy chaplain began to murmur the familiar words of comfort, but these were snatched away by the sounds of life intruding from all around the cemetery, in the drone of commuter traffic just outside the stone walls, in the whine of jets straining up from Reagan National Airport, in the thump of he li cop ters lumbering to and from the Pentagon. No matter how solemn the rituals at Arlington, life continued asserting itself from outside. And even in the cemetery, the living formed a link with all of the dead who had gone before— by speaking their names, by recounting their acts of duty and valor, by suspending the other imperatives of life for a few minutes of ritual and reflection. These acts convey a sort of immortality upon the dead, who continue to live as long as they are remembered.

Out among the tombstones, the long journey of Breaker Patrol was drawing to its conclusion. A firing party unleashed a three- rifle volley, a lone bugler stepped forward to sound Taps, and the honor guard began folding the last flag, pulling the fabric taut, creasing it, gathering it, and passing it down the line until it formed a tight blue triangle. With a sharp salute, the flag passed to a gunnery sergeant, who cradled it like a baby, marched it across the turf, and presented it to a chaplain. The chaplain, in turn, passed it to a retired Marine commandant acting as next of kin for all of those in Breaker Patrol.

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