Andrew Lichtenstein understands Memorial Day.
I went to my first military funeral in November of 2003. A local newspaper wrote that Jacob Fletcher, a 28 year-old private from Long Island, New York, was being buried with military honors at the national cemetery in Pine Lawn, Hundreds of American soldiers had already died in Iraq, and I believed deeply that their sacrifice was important, that their deaths should not be ignored.
The ceremony itself was brief. A lone bugler played taps, an honor guard of seven soldiers fired their rifles into the air three times, for a twenty-one-gun salute, and the American flag covering the casket was carefully folded and presented to Jacob’s family. A military funeral has the feeling of having been designed while at war, under fire, and lasts, at the gravesite, about eight minutes.
Despite the sadness and grief all around me, I appreciated the simplicity and beauty of the event. At the time, soldiers’ deaths in Iraq were not being covered by the national media. It was there, beside the freshly dug dirt of Private Fletcher’s grave, that I knew this was for me more than another story. It was a commitment I had to make, a chance to bear witness.
In the spring of 2004, US News and World Report agreed to fund my travel expenses to attend ten funerals across the country. Since the ceremonies were short, and to some extent, similar, I felt that it was important to add geographic diversity. Every decent photograph can be considered a landscape, and I wanted to rediscover my country through a schedule determined by grief and death. So one week I went to the high plains of Western Nebraska, the next, the desert of Southern Arizona, then the subdivisions of Central Florida.
I had been wrong. No matter how standardized the script of a military funeral, no two were the same. In the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts, the local police closed off the roads to all traffic but the funeral party. In Arkansas, the father of a boy who had given away all of his favorite belongings before he left for war, knowing that he would not be coming back, invited me over after the funeral for a memorial barbeque.
Not feeling comfortable, not wanting to offend or intrude, and always remembering that the people being buried were so much more than another picture for a photo essay, there were some funerals where I never took the camera out of the bag. And then there were others where I became an official photographer of sorts, e mailing images to the friends and family of the soldiers. Everyone’s relationship to death is different.
For this book, from the fall of 2003 until the end of 2006, I attended between fifty and sixty funerals, I do not know, I never counted. Zachary Barr, a radio journalist, and I also visited ten families across America who had lost a brother, father, son, or husband, in Iraq. Some grieving families wholeheartedly supported the war, and the Bush administration for starting it. A few were very angry with the government. But for most, their loved one’s death was deeply personal, beyond politics. It was from these families that I learned the most. They helped to show me what we have really lost, the incredible, priceless human sacrifice of war.
March 2nd, 2007
A picture is truly worth a thousand words. We celebrate our freedoms and keep those who have served in our hearts.