“Ceremony and ritual sweeten sadness and touch it with awe.”
This is one of several personal and poignant observations in Ellouise Schoettler’s Arlington National Cemetery: My Forever Home. A one-person show written and performed by Schoettler, the performance reveals the chain of events that led to her 3-year old daughter and husband of almost 57 years being buried at this national landmark.
Instead of leaving the show feeling despondent or sad, I savored Schoettler’s generosity and eloquence. She shares her remembrances with a straightforward attitude – beginning with “My husband died March 2012” – and peppers her stories with humor and insights. The combination of Schoettler’s deft story-telling abilities and Arlington’s distinct rituals makes this show equally heartfelt and informative.
Arlington National Cemetery is both a historic site and a place that currently provides between 20 and 30 burials a day. Although Schoettler’s husband, who served as a physician and Flight Surgeon for the US Air Force during the Vietnam Era, passed in March, his burial service happened in August. This delay differed immensely from the burial of her 3-year-old daughter, Gretchen, who died of pneumonia in 1964. Back then it took four days to arrange a service.
Arlington National Cemetery: My Forever Home
by Ellouise Schoettler
at Geothe Institut – Main Stage
812 7th Street NW
Washington, DC, 20001
Details and tickets
When Schoettler described her family’s annual gatherings at the cemetery to remember Gretchen, I was reminded of ways in which rituals, both individual and collective, help us preserve memories and connections. Since becoming a widow last year, Schoettler has made frequent visits to her husband’s gravestone wondering at first, “What do you do when you go to sit by the grave of someone you loved?” Eventually she found answers that attest to her personable and sociable nature: she met her “neighbors.”
She got to know the stories of people buried around the gravestone where she too will one day be laid to rest. One of my favorite moments of Schoettler’s show was her description of a visit by middle school students, perhaps 12 years olds, to the cemetery. She learned that a graduate of their school had been buried at Arlington. He was only 25 when he passed. Schoettler remarks that the current pre-teens “may not have known him but they will never forget him.”
The amazing aspect of this performance is that it is deeply personal yet sheds light on broader political and cultural issues. Like Schoettler’s performance Pushing Boundaries, Arlington National Cemetery: My Forever Home” is both educational and emotional. It’s a lesson in military observances and what it’s like to experience one firsthand. It’s also an intriguing performance for anyone interested in ceremonies and remembrances.
Arlington is a special site because most Americans have some association with this hallowed landmark: the burial of John F. Kennedy in 1963, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (sometimes called the Tomb of the Unknowns), its landscape of white gravestones, or the Changing of the Guard, a ceremony that occurs every day the cemetery is open. Schoettler identified how each of the cemetery’s rituals is distinguished by its symbols, such as the significance of the 21 shots that are heard during burials and the caissons that carry remains.
I left the theater thinking about the precision of these ceremonies, especially their attention to detail. Prior to the start of Schoettler’s performance, a slideshow of images from the cemetery was projected on a large screen. Although it was not possible to hear the music and sounds that play such a vital role in these rituals, it was evident that these events are characterized by respect and majesty.
A particularly striking image showed a man kneeling down to hand Schoettler, who was seated during her husband’s ceremony, an American flag perfectly folded into a neat triangle. During the show Schoettler said that when this man knelt down to deliver the flag, she noticed how “his eyes were so kind.” The words he spoke were, “On behalf of the President of the United States we thank you for his service.”
Schoettler provides this intimate portrait of her husband’s burial, yet her stories speak to the transformative power of rituals in any person’s life. Another touching observation occurred toward the end of her show, “No man or woman is truly dead as long as they are remembered.”