National Military Cemetery in Beaufort an example of respect for religious diversity

www.bethyam.orgDecember 7, 2013 

Americans are frustrated about the debacle that is the government's health insurance website. We relish the opportunity to point out legitimate incompetencies, cover-ups and, even more serious, conspiracies that have plagued our government and its policies and politics over the years. But what happens when someone is getting it right?

There are many hard-working federal employees who do a lot of good for our country and particularly in the realm of religion. I can think of one individual who is making a difference for religious pluralism in this country, and most of us might never know the job he has.

I've had the opportunity to officiate at quite a few funerals over the years at the National Military Cemetery in Beaufort. Just walk around and see the graves of deceased soldiers and spouses of soldiers who, by right of their partner's service to our great nation, are allowed to be buried inside the cemetery, even if they did not actually serve themselves. The religious symbols of a cross or a star of David above the headstone immediately indicate someone from the religions of Christianity and Judaism, but there are many others who have been buried there representing other religions as well.

Louis Brown is the cemetery representative. He greets the funeral party and escorts clergy and family to the outdoor pavilion, which serves as a sanctuary for the service before the actual interment of the body. Brown is a retired Army veteran. When he was working in the office at the National Cemetery the job came open and he applied not knowing what it would entail.

After he completed training at Jefferson National Military Cemetery in St. Louis, Brown returned to Beaufort and began his new role comforting the bereaved. He is always dressed immaculately, soft spoken, calm and cooperative. He makes sure the funeral service proceeds smoothly. He does his job with great sensitivity, recognizing that there are a variety of religious practices and rituals in each family's religious tradition.

Brown is not a trained clergyperson or a chaplain. As a matter of fact, he drove a truck when he served in the Army. Yet, he discovered he had the gift of empathy and flexibility, which are critical qualities to have in his position.

"I focus on what the person is feeling rather than let the religious issues distract me," Brown said.

He has learned to develop a respect for the diversity of religions in this country and he understands full well that grieving and sorrow are emotions that transcend religion.

Many clergy incorporate the military's rituals of presenting the flag to a bereaved spouse or discharging weapons in ceremonial fashion to honor a deceased veteran. Blending the religious and military rituals happens flawlessly with Brown presiding behind the scenes and helps create a sacred atmosphere that helps the family to preserve the dignity of the deceased and allows them to mourn each in their own way.

So maybe we can remember that our tax dollars are going to good use when individuals like Louis Brown take their work seriously and perform their jobs with professionalism. A National Military Cemetery deserves our gratitude for honoring the religious diversity of the nation's veterans who served bravely and honorably.

Now that the Supreme Court has consented to hear a case about giving invocations at a local town council meeting, which is sure to stir up a hornet's nest of controversy, it behooves us to remember if people would simply listen to each other and respect the beauty of our diverse religious landscape, we might avoid divisiveness. At least at the National Military Cemetery in Beaufort, the dead can lay at rest without the worry of what prayers will be offered and who is being excluded. They deserve nothing less than that kind of respect and dignity.

Louis Brown is a good model for elected officials and citizens to consider today toward preserving the fragile balance of religion in American society.

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