On today’s Memorial Day in the United States, the tombstones honoring those who died while in the military service will be decorated with flags throughout the country, particularly in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. Although the lines of marble and granite headstones appear uniform, overwhelmingly carved with Christian crosses, look closer and you might spot an atomic whirl circling an “A” for atheist, an infinity symbol, or a Shinto torii gate. In recent years, the freedom of religious expression for soldiers and their families in choosing an “emblem of belief” for their monuments has majorly expanded, but not without some lawsuits.
The National Cemetery Administration’s list of 65 available emblems was last updated in January of this year, with the Druid Awen showing three beams of light radiating from three points. Just a decade earlier, in 2007, the Wiccan Pentacle was approved only after a lawsuit by the national ACLU and the ACLU of Washington that followed Wiccan family and clergy requests that had been refused since the mid-1990s. Anyone can request a new emblem, although the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs states they cannot include “social, cultural, ethnic, civic, fraternal, trade, commercial, political, professional or military emblems” as well as nothing explicit or “pandering in nature.”
For every new emblem, whether the floral pomegranate (#59) or the indigenous Medicine Wheel (#48), there are loved ones who rallied for giving their deceased a burial that best reflected their lives. For instance as John Brownlee reported for Fast Company, the Hammer of Thor approved in 2013 came through the mother of a Marine Corps sergeant who wanted to honor their Odinist family. In 2015, Deena Prichep reported for NPR on a dancing sandhill crane that’s now the 57th emblem. Linda Campbell, an Air Force and National Guard veteran, wanted an emblem to celebrate her wife Nancy Lynchild, and they petitioned for the bird as a “beautiful symbol of wisdom and protection and a happy marriage.” NPR reported at the time that since the approval of the sandhill crane, 300 had been requested.
These emblems tell a narrative beyond the name and rank on the headstone. People of all faiths, or lack thereof, have served in the armed forces, given their lives, and come to be remembered in these places, and that story is there to read in the stone.