We started our journey of reburial for our parents at Arlington National Cemetery fulfilling the fundamental Judeo-Christian value to “Honor thy Father and Mother,” as my two brothers, my only sister and I pooled our resources to embark on setting our father, Sp5 Wyley Wright Jr., free after 50 years from a segregated cemetery. He died in Viet Nam having served this country in two wars. We additionally decided to join him with our mother, Ouida, “the love of his life” who died six years later on the same day as her loving husband on a Monday, March 9 during the noon hour as he had. As we began that sacred trek, I had no inkling that I would become sentimental about gravediggers.
Musing about the word undertaker, knowing its inference, my experience has given me a new nuance about the word and the work. Undertakers undertake the sacred responsibility of laying dreams to rest of the dearly departed as they also undertake preserving a vision for the future of the living…giving a thread of hope that transitions something of the dreams of the departed to the vision of the future for the living.
“Love Separated in Life…Love Reunited in Honor,” the theme of our journey to honor our father and mother with reburial at Arlington, began with the scratching of the earth in Florida, where my father lay in a partial above ground cement vault. The care of the workers of Wilbert Vault Co. Inc. was evident with every stroke of their instruments as they released from Mt. Olive Cemetery, Sp5 Wyley Wright, who died March 9, 1964 as an Honor Guard for Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara. That day fifty years ago, PFC John Francis Shea of Willimantic, CT, who was just days from his 21st birthday also died as recorded in the Gold Book. I always felt, even not knowing the spiritual significance of the “witness of the two,” in this case a Black man with a family and a young White Irish Catholic favorite son stripped of life twenty days before his 21st birthday, should have been a sign to McNamara to tread lightly. Yet instead McNamara escalated the war. (Comments from Commander George Young About the incident in the Gold Book: My first casualty was hard. They all are but I had awfully mixed feelings about the first one. I was a tragedy. It involved the Defense Secretary McNamara andGeneral Maxwell Taylor. Of course, I couldn't tell people like McNamara and Taylor were they could go. I had personal feelings that we had no business being out there in that area that day. But we were there.http://560mp.tripod.com/560MP/Shea.htm)
The digging and scratching of the earth by the gravediggers in Florida releasing our father from a deteriorating segregated cemetery and the gravediggers of Green Acres Cemetery releasing our mother from by comparison, a well-kept perpetual cemetery, was done with much care and precision. The work at Green Acres had to be slower and man powered since there was no vault to be raised. Their work helped us achieve our goal with dignity as they kept digging, not knowing what might be encountered in the earth.
“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” and with all due respect, those moments of inch by inch efforts that yielded us our parents remains, reaffirmed the reality that there is no higher honor or responsibility than to lay a loved one to rest with dignity. Knowing to be “absent from the body is to be present with Christ,” as Paul encourages Christians, there was a strength, an iron “Fe” (Faith in Spanish, the periodic chart symbol for iron, and the sound of our mother’s middle name “Fay”), as we looked upon the workers digging into our history. Jackie, Joe, Stanley and Phyllis, ages 10, 8, 5, and six months when our father died and ages 16, 14, 11 and six years old when our mother died, were given the unexpected gift of being as near to our parents as possible, once again after 50 and 44 years of their passing into eternity.
Much could and should be said about that experience, but not now. I will say that the work of the funeral industry is often overlooked and when it is written or talked about, the negative is often focused upon. I will for one say thank you to the gravediggers of Wilbert Vault Inc. and Green Acres Cemetery, who touched the earth on our behalf and the people of the funeral homes that helped us fulfill our vision to honor our parents. Carthage Funeral Home in Jacksonville, Florida, Taylor Funeral Home in Phenix City, Alabama, Greene Funeral Home of Alexandria, VA; the professionalism you displayed is greatly appreciated and will be cherished in our family. Sconiers Funeral Home of Columbus, Georgia thank you for insights you gave that kept us from getting off course. After purchasing tickets on Delta Airlines, we were pleased to find out about their Fallen Heroes Program. Delta employees who have served in the military perform a ceremony as the soldier is placed and removed from the plane. The family is invited to observe on the tarmac. It was quite moving. Thank you Delta Airlines and TSA for adding this special salute to our sentimental journey. ( It was interesting to note that after we returned home, we found documents that showed that our Dad's body was flown from San Francisco to his home of Jacksonville, Florida on Delta Airlines).
Arlington National Cemetery--Thank you for the professionalism of your people! Counselor T'rina Mitchell and Chaplain Theodore Randall, the Arlington Ladies and the Military Honors soldiers will always be dear to our hearts. Our first encounter with the receptionist, Mr. White, started the experience off to a blessed beginning. The ceremony was so inspirational, words cannot convey. God bless you.
Two years of research and follow up was compressed into one short burst of time. Once Arlington approved our request for the date nearest our parents’ anniversaries, with just a little over 30 days to coordinate death certificates, transit permits, disinterment permits, transportation etc., three cemeteries in three states, three funeral homes in three states and various state requirements, we would not have been able to achieve our family directive to “give honor where honor is due” by honoring our mother and father, if it had not been for the professionalism and quick action of the undertakers.
Our vision of “honoring our mother and father” began to come to life for us with the first strokes of the gravediggers.
Thank you, All!
Commentary by Jackie Wright