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Of Death, Famous and Not So

By admin Published: June 26, 2009

 

Before I took off on this vacation, I wrote a piece about Walter Cronkite, since there was talk he was near the end. I had also been thinking for some time about Farrah Fawcett, though I hadn't written anything down. (What I was thinking, though, is in the post below.) Since this vacation began, Ed McMahon has died, Farrah Fawcett has died, Michael Jackson has died. And I have been thinking a lot about death, but not just because of their passing. ...

The Hawaiian island of Oahu has the qualities of paradise. Beautiful sky, sun, beaches. It has rained here, and once hard, but none of those storms has lasted more than a few minutes. We have sat outside through most of them. It is indeed stunning to wake up each morning and look outside at the blue water, or at Diamond Head seeming so close through the clear, clean air.

Of course, some of that is an illusion. There's heavy traffic on Highway 1. Seedy spots flanking the highway. Even down here in Waikiki, the hotels reach high into the air, and elbow against each other for bits of precious, beach-near real estate.

And there is a history of death. We have been to Pearl Harbor. We are a short walk from a memorial to Hawaiian soldiers killed in World War I. (Not II. I.) A ways past that is a monument commemorating ancient Hawaiians, with their bones interred and ceremonies held. Such bones, unearthed as yet another hotel went up in this area, used to be cast aside, a man who worked at the monument told us; now, they are carefully removed and given a proper burial at this site.

On Thursday we went to the Punchbowl, an expanse in a volcanic crater, officially the National Cemetery of the Pacific. It began with the dead from World War II -- from battles in Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima and Midway, all lavishly described with maps on the walls of the memorial -- and added Korea and Vietnam; you can find grave markers indicating an individual who served in all three of those wars.

There are more than 33,000 graves, mostly veterans but some of their family members. There are people so significant that a map notes where you can find their graves: the journalist Ernie Pyle; astronaut Ellison Onizuka, killed in the Challenger disaster; Henry Oliver Hansen, one of the original flag-raisers at Iwo Jima. There are others of people whose fame does not extend beyond their families. And there are unknowns -- Section A, Grave 1 is an unknown from Pearl Harbor; there are 848 unknowns from the Korean War.

How could you not think of death, and sacrifice, and the price a nation pays for survival, when standing in such a place? Well, there was still more reason. When we arrived, we saw U.S. and Korean flags along the center of the memorial. A crowd was gathering, including many older people in uniform.

We asked someone what was going on. It was the 59th anniversary of the beginning of the Korean War. There was a ceremony to mark the occasion. (The photo above is from the ceremony.) As we walked along the fringes of the cemetery, trying to stay out of the way of the ceremony, we could see color guards assemble, and hear military anthems. As we headed back to our car, we could hear parts of a speech about the war. And we could see, again, the thousands of graves. Graves of people who were not being remembered on TV by Ryan O'Neal or Celine Dion or Cher. But people whose lives, and deaths, mattered; they also contributed to society, they also made a difference to the world.

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