Thursday, February 18, 2010

Box Lunches and Dishing on the Dead

Who doesn't like being invited to lunch? And even better when it's a stranger doing the inviting; there's no telling who the other guests will be or what will be served. And when the invitation is based solely on my blog, my hosts have no idea what to expect from me, either. It's kind of a wild card lunch all around.

I'm a long-time fan of the Virginia Historical Society's noontime Banner Lecture series. After blogging the last one, here, I got an invitation to come to lunch with the speaker and assorted staff members and guests before today's lecture. Perhaps it was my rant about wanting more female-centric topics or maybe they just thought I'd be a sparkling addition to their lunch bunch, but in either case, it was a most gracious invitation and I accepted.

On arrival I was introduced to the group, which included, among others, today's speaker (and author of On Hallowed Ground: The Story of Arlington National Cemetery) Robert Poole, the President of the VHS, Paul Levengood and Phyllis Galanti, wife of local P.O.W. Paul Galanti.

Homemades by Suzanne provided our appropriately Southern boxed lunches; I chose the chicken salad on a crusty roll, fruit salad, a deviled egg and, the piece de resistance, a slice of Red Velvet cake (highly coveted among the dessert choices, which also included key lime pie, apple pie, chocolate pie and carrot cake). There was even an Andes mint to sweeten the breath pre-lecture.

Conversation during the lunch was fascinating with so many history lovers in attendance. Poole told us about how the eternal flame came to be created in a 24-hour period before JFK's funeral. Once Jackie decided she wanted an eternal flame on the day before the 1963 funeral, the logistics of creating such a thing had to be dealt with; eternal flames did not exist. A make-shift solution was devised to get through the funeral and then the actual permanent flame constructed later.

Likewise, we learned that due to the overwhelming increase in visitors to Arlington Cemetery after JFK's burial, his body had to be moved in 1967 to a better location to accommodate the crowds. It seems that visitors were even absconding with the gravel in the walkways for souvenirs. I don't think most people had any idea that the President's body had been dug up, much less moved. Not surprisingly, the cachet of being buried at Arlington also shot up exponentially after JFK.

As it turned out, another perk of being invited to lunch is a front row seat for the lecture; I could get used to this kind of treatment. Poole's talk on Arlington National Cemetery was enlightening, to say the least. The Arlington property, which began as the Lee family plantation subsequently became a Union Army encampment, a slave refugee, a paupers' cemetery and ultimately a symbol of reunion and healing after the Civil War.

Although the first body was buried at Arlington in May 1864, it didn't become a National Cemetery until June, but as Poole pointed out, it's army policy to do first and make it official later. In fact, the Union Quartermaster deliberately had bodies buried in the garden of the plantation and within view of the manor house in order to discourage any possibility of the Lees trying to reclaim their home after the war.

And the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier? An unidentified soldier's body was placed in the tombs for each of the wars up until Vietnam to represent the soldiers who made the greatest sacrifice for their country. But when it came time to memorialize the unknown soldiers from the Vietnam War, DNA testing was being used to identify bodies; as a result, there is no body in that memorial. It's a sign of the times; no one has to remain unidentified anymore.

Obviously, Arlington Cemetery is not a limitless space; consequently family members are being buried vertically now, digging deeper and stacking subsequent loved ones on top of their spouse or family member. The plan is to acquire another 70 acres from nearby Fort Meyer and with greater use of the crematorium facility, Arlington hopes to have the capacity to bury until 2060.

Perhaps in the old south, discussion of the dead was not an appropriate topic of conversation after the noonday meal. Today's lecture about how Arlington cemetery helped the North and South to repair shows just how far we've come and, fortunately, with our Red Velvet cake intact.


  1. Sounds interesting, how often do they have these lectures?

  2. Anywhere from one to three a month.And now they're starting to offer some of the lectures at 7 p.m. as well as noon, in case you can't escape your cubicle at lunch.
    Defintely worth checking out!