I rarely drive into San Francisco over the Golden Gate Bridge, partly because I resent the absurdly high toll and partly because much of my business lies in the East Bay, so I’m inclined to go over the Richmond Bridge, leave my car somewhere in the East Bay, and BART over to San Francisco, thus neatly dodging both the astronomical toll and the problems associated with parking in the City. But when I do drive into San Francisco, or when I drive out over the Golden Gate, I, like everyone else, must pass through the Presidio, the remains of the military base stationed right at the tip of the City, lapping up around the south end of the Golden Gate bridge. There are tall trees and avenues, and of course the Mission-style housing in which officers once lived.
And there’s Golden Gate National Cemetery, a little neighbourhood of the dead in a city packed full of life. It feels odd to be whizzing by the rows of neatly maintained graves, and odder still when you consider the fact that the Bay Area’s dead must ship out to Colma now if they want to be buried in the ground. There is no room left for them in the City itself, a place crowded with buildings creeping up and out, limited by geography and building code, crammed into each other and around each other in a desperate attempt to accommodate an expanding population.
Golden Gate National Cemetery, of course, houses the graves of servicemembers, and is, according to the VA, full up. It, like the City itself, struggles with capacity, and because cemeteries are not like cities, it cannot be edged, sandwiched, and creatively interpreted to fit more graves; for there is something troubling and almost sacrilegious, to most eyes, about stacking the dead to accommodate more of them, though if this were Greece, of course, the graves would be periodically dug up to disinter bones, move them to ossuaries, make way for the next round of dead, in an endless cycle.
The graves here stretch back to the 19th century, and, notably, women as well as men are among the ranks of the some of the oldest; Sarah Bowman, a woman who provided nursing services and was infamous for her height (over six feet), flaming red hair, and pair of pistols, is buried here. So is Harriet Wood, aka Pauline Cushman, who worked as a spy for the Union Army. Both women had colourful lives beyond their service to the military, and their country, and they were honoured with burials at a cemetery that manages to be strangely quiet and calm despite its frenetic urban setting.
Memorial Day is, of course, a time when many cemeteries see visitors in areas where they don’t usually come, tiptoeing respectfully between the rows of graves from decades past, not necessarily looking for family members or friends but looking for something else. Maybe it’s a lonely grave that needs a spray of flowers or a tiny flag, or someone with some thread of commonality, a connection, however tenuous, that links the wanderer and the dead; a last name, a unit number, an occupation. On Memorial Day, cemeteries like this one come alive, even if they haven’t accepted new burials in years, and for a brief moment, the dead come back to life through the living as they walk among them.
There is something about US Military Cemeteries that commands a sort of sombre quiet; the rows upon rows of neatly organised graves, the standardised headstones, the memorials scattered across their grounds. Even the uniformity of the grave decorations, carefully regulated by cemetery authorities. When I visited Punchbowl in Hawaii, I was struck by the strange incongruity of the silent city of the dead against the backdrop of relentlessly blue sky, the scent of plumeria, the heavy air of the tropics. It seems like a pleasant place to be buried, one where people quietly whisper across your grave now and then, remembering you.
On Memorial Day, my thoughts turn to those whom I’ve lost, many of whom I can’t visit because they’re buried too far away, or not buried at all. And thus, I fulfill my own end of the deal; wherever I am, I try to find a military cemetery, or a cemetery with a small military section at the very least, to pay my respects. Clean a few headstones, maybe, add some flowers, talk to the dead for a moment, knowing that someone else hundreds or thousands of miles is doing the same, maybe even doing it for my dead. There is a moment of peculiar unity as we crouch over headstones, a determination to ensure that our dead are not alone.
I grieve for those who lost their lives in the line of duty, and I honour those who survived, who came back and lived long lives before dying surrounded by their families and friends, who have death dates far later than the years of service marked on their headstones. I grieve for those who came back only to find themselves in the streets struggling to survive, who couldn’t find their way back, who served only to find themselves adrift in a hostile sea that forced them beneath the surface of the waters. I do all of these things, and also, I remember. I remember, I remember, I remember; because so much of death becomes about the forgetting, the absence, the darkness, and I refuse to allow such a hard and fast line to be drawn between life and death.
For this reason I seek out the cemetery, and I will nod quietly at the living I find there as we remember.