Fields of Souls: Burials at National Arlington Cemetery

by Taylor Mickal

WASHINGTON D.C., September 27, 2017-- A soldier leading the funeral service watches as the detail lifts the flag in preparation for its folding. Photo by Taylor Mickal

WASHINGTON D.C., September 27, 2017-- A soldier leading the funeral service watches as the detail lifts the flag in preparation for its folding. Photo by Taylor Mickal

 
 

There is reverence in death.

And between the gates of the Arlington National Cemetery, the highest form of this reverence can be found in every inch of its rolling hills and marbled slates of stone.

There are many memorials in Washington D.C., but none command the quiet and respect of their visitors like Arlington. Through its lengthy winding walkways and steep pathways the cemetery remains silent, despite the crowds that pass through them.

Each day, however, the sound of rifle fire and a single bugle can be heard multiple times; each instance signifying the burial of a new member of the cemetery.

WASHINGTON D.C., October 05, 2017-- A single bugle player sounds off "Taps" during a military funeral. The solemn  melody resounds through the otherwise quiet cemetery-- even the birds are silenced by it. Photo by Taylor Mickal.

WASHINGTON D.C., October 05, 2017-- A single bugle player sounds off "Taps" during a military funeral. The solemn  melody resounds through the otherwise quiet cemetery-- even the birds are silenced by it. Photo by Taylor Mickal.

WASHINGTON D.C., October 05, 2017-- A squad of seven rifles are fired three times in quick succession. The ceremonial act originates from the European dynastic wars; the dead and wounded would be removed from the battlefield. Once done, three shots would be fired to signal that the fighting could continue.[1]Photo by Taylor Mickal

WASHINGTON D.C., October 05, 2017-- A squad of seven rifles are fired three times in quick succession. The ceremonial act originates from the European dynastic wars; the dead and wounded would be removed from the battlefield. Once done, three shots would be fired to signal that the fighting could continue.[1]Photo by Taylor Mickal

Most of those who are buried at Arlington are fairly old. They have lived their lives out and are put to rest among the many graves-- in stark contrast-- of those from past conflicts barely in their twenties. While there are certainly tears shed each time, the ceremonies for these elder men and women are almost peaceful; they come with the acknowledgement that the time has come to move on from this life, as it does for us all. 

WASHINGTON D.C., August 09, 2017-- After a lifetime together, a woman pays her respects to her late husband by placing the last of the roses upon his casket. A somber goodbye to a life well-lived. Photo by Taylor Mickal

WASHINGTON D.C., August 09, 2017-- After a lifetime together, a woman pays her respects to her late husband by placing the last of the roses upon his casket. A somber goodbye to a life well-lived. Photo by Taylor Mickal

Each ceremony is different. Some take place beneath tents and consist of prayers over an urn. Others are full-honors burials that include bands, carriages, rifle squads, and even flyovers by jets. But every ceremony is reverent, and there is a precise and careful nature in which each one is carried out.

There is always a folded flag. 

WASHINGTON D.C., September 27, 2017-- Two soldiers finish folding the flag that draped the casket of this fallen brother-in-arms. Of all the military ceremonies I have witness in my lifetime, none have the carefulness and precision that is displayed so profoundly in these burials. Photo by Taylor Mickal

WASHINGTON D.C., September 27, 2017-- Two soldiers finish folding the flag that draped the casket of this fallen brother-in-arms. Of all the military ceremonies I have witness in my lifetime, none have the carefulness and precision that is displayed so profoundly in these burials. Photo by Taylor Mickal

I have had the privilege to photograph these funerals four times now. And each time I find myself still in awe of the beautiful care in each one. The way the flag is folded. The steadfast stoic nature of each soldier or sailor who bears the casket. All of it is so expertly executed.

Each act is carried out with precision, and every hand movement and step has been choreographed. I always find this most notable when the casket is being carried-- the soldiers move with purpose but never do they fall out of sync.

WASHINGTON D.C., September 27, 2017-- Eight soldiers carry the casket briskly and purposefully across the grounds to where it will be lowered beneath the surface. They move with precision and certainty in their every step, as seen so clearly in this photograph. Photo by Taylor Mickal

WASHINGTON D.C., September 27, 2017-- Eight soldiers carry the casket briskly and purposefully across the grounds to where it will be lowered beneath the surface. They move with precision and certainty in their every step, as seen so clearly in this photograph. Photo by Taylor Mickal

On rare unfortunate occasion, there will be a young life brought to Arlington. During my time here, it was 20-year-old Kevin Bushell-- a U.S. Navy sailor who was killed in a tragic accident aboard the U.S.S. John McCain. A young burial like his will always be drastically different; it’s much more difficult to accept when a life is taken so unexpectedly and so soon. When I photographed Kevin’s funeral, it was unlike any of the others; no ceremony was filled with so much heartache. The photos tell that story better than my own words ever could.

WASHINGTON D.C., October 05, 2017-- the Chaplain gives his service as the funeral commences. There is a strain in his voice as he pushes through to deliver, his words falling softly on those listening. Photo by Taylor Mickal

WASHINGTON D.C., October 05, 2017-- the Chaplain gives his service as the funeral commences. There is a strain in his voice as he pushes through to deliver, his words falling softly on those listening. Photo by Taylor Mickal

WASHINGTON D.C., October 05, 2017-- The admiral leading the burial stands watch in perfect form as the hands of the many sailors work to fold the flag which draped Kevin's casket. Photo by Taylor Mickal

WASHINGTON D.C., October 05, 2017-- The admiral leading the burial stands watch in perfect form as the hands of the many sailors work to fold the flag which draped Kevin's casket. Photo by Taylor Mickal

WASHINGTON D.C., October 05, 2017-- The first flag of three goes to the Kevin's wife. The admiral thanks her for his service to country and shares a few words in private condolence. The following two flags will go to his mother and father only moments later. Photo by Taylor Mickal

WASHINGTON D.C., October 05, 2017-- The first flag of three goes to the Kevin's wife. The admiral thanks her for his service to country and shares a few words in private condolence. The following two flags will go to his mother and father only moments later. Photo by Taylor Mickal

WASHINGTON D.C., October 05, 2017-- One of Kevin's childhood friends stands alone to mourn. This was one of a handful who attended that had grown up with Kevin. I didn't see a singe tear fall, but in some indescribable way he struck me as having taken Kevin's death the hardest of all his friends. Photo by Taylor Mickal

WASHINGTON D.C., October 05, 2017-- One of Kevin's childhood friends stands alone to mourn. This was one of a handful who attended that had grown up with Kevin. I didn't see a singe tear fall, but in some indescribable way he struck me as having taken Kevin's death the hardest of all his friends. Photo by Taylor Mickal

WASHINGTON D.C., October 05, 2017-- After the crowd leaves, all of Kevin's closest friends approach to pay their respects together. Their faces look on and strike me with a feeling of disbelief; as if this is just all a terrible dream gone on too long. Photo by Taylor Mickal

WASHINGTON D.C., October 05, 2017-- After the crowd leaves, all of Kevin's closest friends approach to pay their respects together. Their faces look on and strike me with a feeling of disbelief; as if this is just all a terrible dream gone on too long. Photo by Taylor Mickal

WASHINGTON D.C., October 05, 2017-- Kevin's father made several returns to the casket, unable to leave his son's side. On the third return, he fell to his knees and wept-- the agony of the loss to heavy to bear in the moment. Photo by Taylor Mickal

WASHINGTON D.C., October 05, 2017-- Kevin's father made several returns to the casket, unable to leave his son's side. On the third return, he fell to his knees and wept-- the agony of the loss to heavy to bear in the moment. Photo by Taylor Mickal

Photographing these funerals is often difficult in many regards. Not only because of the physical demand in being everywhere at once, while simultaneously being as unobtrusive as possible, but because of the emotional toll it takes to be a part of these sometimes devastating events. But it is work that I find immense honor in doing, and it holds a personal place in my heart to make images of such important moments.

As I leave each funeral, I am always humbled and moved by the sheer number of graves I pass on my way out of the cemetery. To date, there are over 400,000 people buried in Arlington. The stones go on for what seems like miles; an endless set of rolling hills covered in this marble field of souls.

WASHINGTON D.C., September 27, 2017-- The casket sits alone, and still it is surrounded by the men and women who have fought beside the man inside. Photo by Taylor Mickal

WASHINGTON D.C., September 27, 2017-- The casket sits alone, and still it is surrounded by the men and women who have fought beside the man inside. Photo by Taylor Mickal