Sunday, November 6, 2016

Memphis National Cemetery

What do you call it when you spend part of your weekends searching for cool cemeteries? I can't find a word for it, but surely there is one.

I've been putting off a visit to Memphis National Cemetery, thinking it was just going to be row after row of white tombstones. That's pretty much what is allowed in a cemetery for fallen heroes and not much else. And that is exactly what I found and so much more.

The cemetery is laid out in what I've discovered is typical Memphis fashion for a place of final rest and history: hidden in the middle of a commercial area/sketchy neighborhood.

I almost missed the turn because you can't see the entrance from the main road. 

There's no easing into this cemetery. Right behind that wall, the monuments line up one after the other. There doesn't appear to be any space left, and as I learned, the cemetery stopped accepting new burials back in the 1990s. There are veterans from every war from the Civil War to Vietnam interred here, including one Medal of Honor recipient, James H. Robinson.

I was the only person there for a long time, giving me a great chance to take in the peaceful setting. Lots of robins and blue jays were hanging around and didn't seem to mind me. The grounds were well-kept.

As I made my way up one road and down another, one thing stuck out: there seemed to be a huge number of unknowns. Thousands of them.

Turns out, of all the national cemeteries, Memphis National Cemetery has the second highest number of unknowns, somewhere in the neighborhood of 7,500 from what I could tell. Naturally, I could not find which cemetery has the highest number.

Most of the unknowns are remains recovered from local battlefields during and after the Civil War, when their graves were marked by little more than wood which had become weathered an illegible. Those soldiers will now forever rest under 100-year-old oak trees with the sounds of the nearby railroad tracks (also a Memphis cemetery scene-setter).

There are a pair of monuments on the grounds honoring Union soldiers from Illinois and Minnesota who fought in the Civil War.

Very few tombstones were adorned with any sort of memento. The rules are strict when it comes to flowers and what can be placed graveside.

I confess I really had to brush up on my history after my visit. I was truly shocked by the number of unidentified remains, but also humbled by the fact that each one received the same dignified treatment as those who will be remembered by their names, ranks, and service to our country.


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