There is a stillness at the heart of the cemetery, a stillness more profound than mere silence. Walk among the graves and it settles on you, and draws you in. Linger long enough, and you can almost feel it beating. There’s been a different stillness lately outside the gates of Long Island National Cemetery, a strange stillness caused by a rampaging virus reluctant to let go of its power over us. One wonders what the veterans in these hallowed grounds would make of that.
There’s the stone marking the resting spot of Athanasios Melachris. Born in 1889, he was an Army private in World War I in the 311th Regiment of the 78th Infantry Division, the famed “point of the wedge” in the offensive that finally defeated Germany. He’s been here for 52 years. He’s seen a lot.
So has Edward Nielsen, a sergeant in the Army in World War II. He lies nearby. The headstone marking his death on Nov. 5, 1973 is graced with an American flag and two sets of fresh flowers, one bearing an “I HEART MY GRANDPA” sign, a reminder of the humanity past and present in this place, a testament that memories are long and that love and pride never die.
The stillness outside the gates in East Farmingdale and far beyond is unfamiliar terrain for most of us. It’s been difficult to navigate at times. This weekend, it’s meant a loss of many of the ways we typically celebrate Memorial Day. The parades. The air shows. The big barbecues and other large gatherings. The fun rituals that also mark the unofficial start of summer. It will be a quieter celebration this year, people say, in tones often wistful or even mournful, like this is a problem.
Perhaps it’s not. Perhaps this year’s unusual circumstances better match the solemnness of the occasion. Perhaps we’ll all have a little more time, and focus, to contemplate this day of commemoration. Perhaps it’s a better fit.
A soft breeze curls through the rows of graves as a young mockingbird flits from one headstone to another, drawing one’s eyes to the etchings underneath.
There’s William J. Purcell, Army Master Sergeant, who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. And Army Sergeant First Class Luther Dean Phelps, a veteran of the same three wars. Not far away is Zenonum Macygin, a private in the Marine Corps and a Korean War vet, who died at age 83 in February as the virus was widening its campaign. Two flags and a bouquet of fabric flowers adorn his headstone.
Tiger lilies sit at the base of another stone, a bunch of sunflowers perched upright rest precariously against yet another. The splashes of color complement the endless rows of white.
You wander down these aisles of reverence and wonder what these souls would think about what’s going on in the world they left behind. What would they say about those defying orders and guidance, about order itself beginning to fray? They could tell us a lot about following orders, about the need to maintain discipline, about the willingness to keep making sacrifices, about the harm that lies in selfishness, about the greater good one should always try to serve. They could instruct us about burdens that must be shouldered, the many kinds of burdens that must be shouldered. Their presence in this place is proof that some burdens are more profound than others.
The stillness in the heart of the cemetery is overwhelming. But if you linger long enough, and listen hard enough, you can hear it speaking.
Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.