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Content here represents the voice of SIGNATURE SUNSETS, an informational initiative designed to broaden and brighten horizons in the funerary domain.

The material is an outgrowth of a pre-planning reference book, Pondering Leaves: Composing and Conveying Your Life Story's Epilogue, written by the author of this blog.

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Saturday, January 2, 2016

UNITED STATES MILITARY ACADEMY CEMETERY

JOURNEY JOURNAL... West Point, New York

SUBTERRANEAN SPECIAL FORCES

The pastoral burial property is located in the Hudson Valley Highlands within the gates of the United States Military Academy.  


Photo Source: Wikipedia.org

Sheltered by trees, the West Point Cemetery, America’s oldest military cemetery and a national historic landmark, has served as quarters for men and women deployed to heaven from the time of the Revolutionary War (1775-1783) to the present.  Though not officially designated as a military cemetery until 1817, this promontory that was originally known as the “German Flats” had been utilized for interments of soldiers and local residents for several decades before that time.  After its formal classification as a cemetery, remains from several small gravesites scattered elsewhere on the post were moved here, along with others found during excavations for new construction projects.   

With a nod to the significance of this 8,000-strong underground detachment, the spirits of comrades, classmates, and others are mired in the hearts and minds of patriots still engaged in life’s operations.  Besides the military academy’s superintendents, past and present members of the Corps of Cadets, as well as its faculty and staff, leaders of every American war have been buried here.  Their physical remains and that of their families have been joined also by those of acclaimed engineers, athletes, and clergy… the old as well as the young:  




The Medal of Honor distinguishes twenty-four of the decedents.  


The number of West Point superintendents tallies twenty-five, including Brigadier General Sylvanus Thayer, Class of 1808, who was afforded the title, “Father of West Point.”  Major General Winfield Scott was dubbed the “Grand Old Man of the Army.”  Names that tend to surface in elementary school history reviews include the Civil War cavalry commander, Colonel Custer, Class of 1861, and Major Anderson, Class of 1825, commander of Fort Sumter at the onset of the Civil War.  

Of more recent recognition might be Lieutenant Colonel Edward White from the Class of 1952, who was the first American to walk in space and subsequently died aboard Apollo One.  Interment of William Westmoreland, Class of 1936, who had been an extolled commander of various military operations, took place in 2005.  The cremated remains of Persian Gulf War commander and Class of 1956 graduate, General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, were buried amid majestic military pomp in February, 2013, next to the plot of his father (Class of 1917), who was the founder of the New Jersey Police.      

Women are part of the encampment here as well.  A Revolutionary War heroine, Margaret “Molly” Corbin, engaged in battle as a surrogate for her mortally wounded husband and became the first female to be awarded privileges as a disabled veteran.  Second Lieutenant Emily Perez, Class of 2005, was the first female minority graduate, killed in 2006 by a bomb while leading a convoy; she was the first female African-American officer from West Point to die in combat, specifically, during the Iraq War.

So many individuals represented here had garnered plaudits for their accomplishments, while others were destined to the compound because of familial attachments.  The remains of some of the country’s most notable figures may be stationed next to those of people unknown to the masses; long-established gravesites and headstones are within range of newly excavated earth. 


Lying within a plain of dirt in close proximity to one another, this mosaic-like squad of the famous and those relatively undistinguished according to societal standards attests to an oft-quoted reality:  Death is the great leveler and all earthly glories vanish in death.  

“In the democracy of the dead all men at last are equal. 
There is neither rank nor station nor prerogative in the republic of the grave.”

                                                                                                         ~ John James Ingalls

Visitors may come to attention here, prompted by realization of a deviation from other military burial grounds.  In contrast to the Academy's campus milieu otherwise manifesting strictly defined formations and obligatory precision, the appearance of its cemetery might be unexpected.  Instead of the familiar sea of white tablets lined up repetitively in equidistant rows at other countrywide sites, there is a heterogeneous mix of stone memorials placed irregularly.  Rather than uniformity there is diversity.



Personally acquired stone memorials of various sorts are situated among the standard military versions.  




Some of the older ones are especially eye-catching because of their distinctions.  The headstone commemorating an eminent Army football coach, Earl “Red” Blaik, is in the shape of a football positioned for kick-off.  The body of a Civil War veteran, Egbert Viele, was interred in a two-story pyramid under the guardianship of two stone sphinxes.   

Photo Source:  ForUsAll Campaign for West Point, Cemetery Marketing

One- and two-hour bus tours are operated to enlighten people about the lives of historical figures and afford them an opportunity to absorb the surroundings.  Visitors are welcome all year round, throughout the week from sunrise to sunset, free to explore the grounds on foot.  There has been no master plan for plot arrangements and assignments.  Caretakers have made an effort to place the remains of classmates and friends close to one another.  Those that are casualties from the major wars may be in clustered sections.  

The caretaker’s cottage, erected in 1872, stands appropriately in guardianship adjacent to gravesites.
Photo Source: Wikipedia West Point media file

Originally, the Old Cadet Chapel was located across from the post’s clock tower at Bartlett Hall.  In 1910 when demolition was its proposed fate, a cadre of cadets who wanted it saved for posterity prompted its relocation to the cemetery.  
           Photo Source: Wikipedia West Point media file               

Contemporary columbarium walls follow the circular pattern of the cemetery’s layout.  

Photo Source:  ForUsAll Campaign for West Point, Cemetery Marketing


These burial grounds so rife with historical relevance are also filled to the gill with underground occupants.  After two centuries of open enrollment, so to speak, the capacity of this twelve-acre parcel is dwindling.  At the current rate of occupancy – one hundred forty to two hundred remains per year – it had been predicted that options for full bodily burials would evaporate within a decade.  Fortunately, that prospect has been addressed by the Academy and its graduates who have taken steps for expansion of the grounds as well as the construction of columbaria.  A development project was boosted by a monetary gift from the Class of 2011.  Plans include an embellishment of the modern age – a smartphone app that will enable visitors to identify sites.  

As a member of the association of graduates, Lieutenant Colonel Freed Lowrey, Class of 1967 and a Vietnam War veteran, has been active in raising funds for the project.  He aspires to be buried here in the company of classmates and comrades who died in the warfare they experienced together.  

“I want to be among soldiers.  I want to be among people of my own kind who have served and done so much for the nation and have sacrificed so much.  
I could be in Arlington, I could be in any national cemetery, but this is – and I’m not a religious person – I mean, West Point’s almost my soul.”  
                                                                                                    ~ Freed Lowrey

Noted in a mission statement, the intent of the West Point Cemetery is to deliver a final salute to those who have served the country.  Through commemorative actions and memorial tributes, may it be said, “Well done; be thou at peace.”








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