May 27th, 2009
08:43 AM ET

Our children – dancing on the graves

Ayala and Avery Alexander examine the headstone of US Air Force Tech Sgt. Anthony Capra at Arlington National Cemetery's Section 60. Their father's headstone is just a few yards away. He died in Afghanistan months before they were born.

Ayala and Avery Alexander examine the headstone of US Air Force Tech Sgt. Anthony Capra at Arlington National Cemetery's Section 60. Their father's headstone is just a few yards away. He died in Afghanistan months before they were born.

Larry Shaughnessy
CNN Pentagon Producer

After spending several days over the Memorial Day weekend at Arlington National Cemetery I was surprised to learn that this somber, serious place is also a heck of a playground.

I've seen little girls scramble among the headstones blowing bubbles. One little boy was fascinated by the knickknacks left at the graves. Countless children used the large expanse of grass near the newest graves of the fallen heroes from Iraq and Afghanistan as a great place to just run with abandon. While many children seem sad about visiting the grave of their father or mother, many others are allowed, even encouraged to play.

One woman brought a small blanket, an American Flag and a ball to occupy her young son while she visited the grave of her roommate who died for his country. The little boy probably too young to realize that his middle name is the same as the name on the headstone, a permanent connection to her mother's good friend.

I listened to children giggle, unfazed by the 3 round volley of gunshots that echoed over Section 60 from some other part of the cemetery.

While Angie Capra visited the grave of her husband Anthony, their daughter Anna played with Tony's youngest sisters... little girls just a few years older than Anna. They hid from each other behind the giant shade tree near Tony's grave and blew bubbles that floated on the breeze over the headstones.

I've been to many burials at Arlington, but they are always in Section 60….sometimes called America's Saddest Acre. That’s where many of those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan are buried. But the short formality of the burial ceremonies there and the rules for the media meant I'd never seen children allowed to occupy themselves in the cemetery.

But little of what occurs in Section 60 when burials are not underway is formal. Even adults can be seen enjoying a champagne toast or a bottle of beer in honor of the loved one they've come to visit. The children seem to subscribe to a youngster's version of the same philosophy.

Ayala and Avery Alexander came with their mother, Capt. Marissa Alexander to visit the grave of their father, Leroy, who died in Afghanistan before they were born.

When their mother wasn't quietly using the visit to teach them about their father and what Section 60 means, the twins were busy exploring. Avery was particularly fascinated by a small Yoda doll left on a headstone. His sister got a big kick out of a red, white and blue pinwheel adorning another grave.

The children seemed to understand the boundaries of Arlington National Cemetery and obeyed them. Occasionally a toy or a stone left on a headstone might be knocked to the ground by a child's hand. But if they themselves didn't replace it, some adult nearby would and without any scolding. Never did I see a child behave inappropriately. A few babies cried, but there were no temper tantrums. No climbing on headstones or intentional destruction of the personal memorials so many families have created at the graves.

The phrase "to dance on your grave" has come to mean a way of insulting the deceased.

But these past days at watching the children in Section 60, I've come to realize "to play on your grave" may be one of the best ways a child can honor their deceased fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters, the men and women we call fallen heroes.

Filed under: 360° Radar • Memorial Day
soundoff (86 Responses)
  1. Michelle

    For those of you who still do not get it: WE ARE TALKING ABOUT RESPECT FOR OTHERS, Not yourself and what YOU think is right or wrong. If you can, please pull yourself out of this narcissistic realm and think of others. I agree that life is for the living and seeing children run and play is a blessing. And, if you want to take your children to the cemetery to see their Daddy and let them play on HIS grave, great. Just please don't disturb others, it is rude. I am just sick of parents thinking that everyone loves their child's obnoxious behavior as much as they do. Contrary to what you believe some of us still teach respect for others and that thinking of others first is the key to peace.

    Further more, it is NOT the norm to run and play on the graves of others. Not sure where you got your information on the history North America cemetery behavior. As for what they do in other countries, I don't care.

    May 28, 2009 at 3:03 pm |
  2. mm

    Lovely story

    May 28, 2009 at 8:34 am |
  3. angei capra

    Thank you for writing this beautiful article. It was my daughter that day blowing bubbles with her aunts. We chose to remember the laughter that my husband brought into our lives than how he died. My youngest will never know him but she will know that he loved to laugh and loved his family. So if I allow my children to play and laugh when we visit him it's because it makes them happy. And that is the only my husband and I wanted for them. Thank you again

    May 28, 2009 at 12:03 am |
  4. Leah

    To those who think it is disrespectful – it is a relatively new and more so a North American concept to be quiet and serene in a cemetery. Around the world this is not the norm, nor was it in the past. Just because you wouldn't necessarily honor the dead in the same way does not mean it is disrespectful. The article isn't talking about kids breaking things or throwing fits or screaming. As a mother of 3 whose husband and cousin are buried at Arlington, my kids love to show off and laugh at their Daddy's grave. My 6 year old daughter "showed" her father that she learned to do a cartwheel. I'm sure his soul is much happier in heaven to see his daughter's happiness rather than to see her stand in silence and cry.

    May 27, 2009 at 6:00 pm |
  5. Joanna

    Children living life – it reminds us all that life goes on – we need to be there for the living – not die with the deceased. Yes, we miss them horribly, but our children are here, right now, and need us, right now.

    May 27, 2009 at 2:49 pm |
  6. Nellie

    Just my personal opinion: a cemetery whether it be Arlington or a small family plot is no place to be playing around. This may explain why some of those 30 and younger have no respect, parents are too lenient and tolerant of misbehavior.

    May 27, 2009 at 1:38 pm |
  7. Kim

    Life is for the living, and this holds especially true for children. Seeing kids run free in a cemetery reminds us what life is truly about. Live it to the fullest and find some joy in each moment, even the sorrowful ones. We honor those who have died when we enjoy the moments we have been given, as a result of the sacrifices they have made. I've watched my own young child run through the peaceful cemetery in Westwood, CA. It's a lovely vision, and one I'll always cherish.

    May 27, 2009 at 1:37 pm |
  8. RealityKing

    The best way to honor the dead is to not allow the enemy, or the federal government, to take away the freedoms our brave soilders died for...

    May 27, 2009 at 1:35 pm |
  9. LaMonte Bell

    AC, what can I say, except this is a wonderful piece. My wife is in the Navy so I've been to Arlington, on a few occasions it is such a place of reflection that it is beyond words. Thank you for your insight.

    May 27, 2009 at 1:34 pm |
  10. Sally Read

    I have to write something since I don't want the above message to be the last one on this thread.

    I think your blog about children playing and laughing amonst the gravestones is marvellous. Our Grampa and Grandma are buried on a hill in southern Oregon and every once in a while we go down there and have a picnic with them. There are always other families there doing the same thing and it is a place of happiness and serenity and fond feelings. The anitdote to grief is the voices of children.

    Sally Read

    May 27, 2009 at 1:33 pm |
  11. Rodney

    I'm sorry. Great piece, wrong sentiments. This is a perfect example of the lack of respect that the newer generations are showing for society. We have to put up with children running and screaming with reckless abandon through restaurants and touching and tearing up things that don't belong to them in retail locations. No respect for anything. And now we're talking about how cute it is to do the same thing at a cemetery? There are ways to honor these fine soldiers, but this isn't one of them.

    There were things placed upon those graves that were personal and not meant for children to play and touch. I'm appalled that anybody would think that this is somehow cute and ok.

    May 27, 2009 at 1:21 pm |
  12. Terri

    That could possibly be one of the most beautiful, touching and insightful blog entries I've ever read. Thank you.

    May 27, 2009 at 1:16 pm |
  13. Happy Tears

    To the 2 posters who think the children were disrespecting, please read the article again. These brave people died so that all children will remain free to run. There is a word for this, but I can't think of it now, so, here's to our Heroes and to our future. Let the children play, always and forever.

    May 27, 2009 at 1:04 pm |
  14. debi s

    How do people know what the deceased parent or friend would have thought about the kids playing on the graves. I was taught to be so afraid of graveyards that it took me years before I would even set foot in one.

    I say it is a beautiful thing for the children to realize that it is not a place to be afraid. Just somewhere to visit passed loves and missed loved ones.

    May 27, 2009 at 1:02 pm |
  15. Cliff Downing

    Let the children play. There's time enough to take that away from them as they grow older. How sad indeed that these brave men and women gave their life so we could all live. I wonder what the premanent occupants of area 60 would say when hearing that allowing a small child to play would some how turn them into a murderer, thief or drug dealer.
    My Great-grandfather was a veteran of WW I. Some of his last words may be the answer. He said "I hope that heaven is a place full of kids and dogs and spotted ponies."

    May 27, 2009 at 1:00 pm |
  16. Sarah in CT

    The nicest article I have ever read.

    God Bless all of our Fallen Heros!

    May 27, 2009 at 1:00 pm |
  17. Dan S.

    What an amazing story!

    As a veteran myself I cannot think of anything more honorable than to have the children playing freely on this sacred ground where those that gave their all to make and keep us free are resting! If we could ask those that lay there I am sure they would be smiling!

    May 27, 2009 at 12:59 pm |
  18. Stephanie

    Ed Polk, you're wrong. I know if I died in war (or anytime) I would want my children or grandchildren to enjoy life and play close. It's such a great event to play for their loved ones even if they don't realize their doing for them. Why mourn for the lost, when we can be happy they were here?

    May 27, 2009 at 12:56 pm |
  19. Mary B.

    My parents are buried in a National cemetary, but they lived lives cut short by illness. At 60, I've outlived them both. It is a sad place for me...so sad, I choose not to go. Section 60 is made up of men and women who died before thei "times". Whatever those families do, WHATEVER comfort those families find, be it children putting pictures on their dead parents' graves, playing with bubbles,playing tag, etc. they have certainly earned the right...and I for one will not judge their behavior disrespectful. Those men and women gave their lives; so did those families...and whatever gives them the strength to face another day without their loved ones is just fine with me. God bless them! I'd rather hear a child's laughter than sobbing...

    May 27, 2009 at 12:55 pm |
  20. Karen

    Arlington was the highlight memory of a trip to DC several years ago with my 3 young boys, we heard a choir practicing Amazing Grace during the changing of the guard at the tomb of the unknown soldier. It was good for them to see the importance of taking care of the soldiers killed fighting for their country. We walked and ran looking for the grave of a friend of their father's killed in Iraq, and it was this time that we shared looking at the rocks stacked on and around the headstones that allowed for an intimate conversation about sacrifice for ideals, and about not forgetting people who have died, continuing to visit your loved ones should be an open and regular thing to do. I hope they will continue to talk to me once I am gone. We did find the grave sight and the headstone had sunk to one side, so as we left we went to the office and let them know, a human responsibility. I will never forget that day. I had been anxious that the visit would make them afraid, but the opposite was true, it allowed them to be free to see the loss and celebrate the lives of those buried there. Arlington is a national treasure.

    May 27, 2009 at 12:55 pm |
  21. jan

    I am constantly surprised how some people miss the whole point of an article. I love the idea that children get pleasure from remembering their fathers and mothers and are comfortable with the idea of playing among the tombstones. Your article specifically said that no damage was done and that adults seemed to get joy out of watching the children. Murderers, thieves, and drug dealers...give me a break! So sad that Ed and SLM can't enjoy the beauty of life instead of the always looking at the negative.

    May 27, 2009 at 12:55 pm |
  22. VLA

    What a beautiful story. Our children will grow up beautiful people who respect our fallen heros and who will hopefully understand why their mothre/father/sister or brother died for our freedom. Running laughing children is seeing the best of being free!

    May 27, 2009 at 12:52 pm |
  23. Roger A. Bendorf

    I really appreciated the thoughts and consideration shared in the article. It is my opinion that once we loose the laughter of both ourselves as individuals and of the children we as individuals have lost hope and maybe life's purpose. Laughter should be shared in the memorial services of the lives that lived with us and that left this earth. The question should be then asked what is wrong with laughter in a cemetery?

    I personally choose the life with shared laughter, not the life with no freedom(s).

    May 27, 2009 at 12:51 pm |
  24. mary

    Thank you. This was a wonderful article and I agree laughing over crying any day

    May 27, 2009 at 12:48 pm |
  25. Fritz

    Very touching. I think anything mentioned about Arlington Cemetery is always both sad and comforting. The beauty of children among those headstones of the bravest this country has to offer makes a bitter-sweet image. I am sure that they are comforted knowing tears aren't the only healing allowed among the Gardens of Stone; children's laughter heals, too. God bless the men and women laid to rest in Arlington; may we always remember their courage and sacrifice. (EP, I think you've got it all wrong).

    May 27, 2009 at 12:46 pm |
  26. amathes

    To those of you who say that it is disrespectful of these kids to be playing, why? What is so disrepsectful about children playing outside? How is letting children play and be innocent "letting them run wild?" AC said "A few babies cried, but there were no temper tantrums. No climbing on headstones or intentional destruction of the personal memorials so many families have created at the graves." These children seem to me to be well behaved, there didn't seem to be any bad behavoir. How you can say that allowing a child to play is going to ensure that they grow up to be "tomorrows Murderers, theives and drug dealers". This kids aren't growing up without guidance, their parents are taking the time to spend with them, and show them places like Arlington.

    May 27, 2009 at 12:44 pm |
  27. DeAnne

    Ed & SLM- you two need to stop and take a breath, these children, laughing and living are what our soldiers fought for. Per Larry S, the author, he saw no disrespect, no outbursts.

    If the fallen among whom the children were 'playing' were watching and I am certain they were, they would be proud to know that they did not sacrifice in vain, that freedom and laughter ring.

    May we always hear the laughter of children as the voice of freedom.

    May 27, 2009 at 12:42 pm |
  28. Abby

    We do this at my father's grave at Barrancas National Cemetery at NAS Pensacola. We usually lay out a blanket and have a picnic. Sometimes Mom and I would go out early in the morning, stopping at Hardee's on the way to base to pick up Papa's favorite breakfast to share.

    May 27, 2009 at 12:41 pm |
  29. DM

    I grew up playing among the same headstones my mother and grandmother played around when visiting the family plot in CT. I was not loud or rowdy... it was all comfortable and interesting. So many people are afraid and formal around death. I'll be very happy if my kids and grandkids picnic on my grave when I'm gone!

    May 27, 2009 at 12:38 pm |
  30. Sheila

    I agree with Ed Polk to a degree, as I do believe that children are not taught respect for anything these days – they play with toys in church, run around restaurants, etc. Perhaps children could come to the gravesite with something quiet to occupy their time while mom/dad spend time in reflection. A book, a video with an earphone... and a chair or blanket to sit on. If the adult wishes to spend an hour in prayer/meditation, the children cannot simply sit quietly and stare. But I do believe they should start in meditation with the parent, for a time period appropriate to their age.

    May 27, 2009 at 12:36 pm |
  31. MFM

    I worry about the judgemental attitudes of a few people's comments above, they totally missed the point of the article...and the reason the soldiers fought so hard – freedom...

    These children are not misbehaving or disrespectful, they are experiencing death in their own way. Honoring the soldiers ultimate sacrifice though children's laughter and joy, what an amazing concept? Being allowed to smile, laugh and play when among loved ones is such a beautiful way to show them the respect they deserve... I thank those men and women who fought so hard so these children could run, blow bubbles and play freely... I am truly grateful.

    May 27, 2009 at 12:36 pm |
  32. A. Merriken

    Wow, I am surprised at the comments regarding the lack of respect today's children have. Old and grumpy people have been saying "the biggest thing wrong with our society today" is kids lack respect, there isn't enough discipline, etc. generation after generation. If you read the article thoroughly, you would have read "Never did I see a child behave inappropriately. " Quit being negative! This is a great article! If only I will be blessed enough to have children dance and blow bubbles happily on my grave!

    May 27, 2009 at 12:34 pm |
  33. margret

    Mr. Polk, I think you might have gone just a lot too far with that comment. How can you start with children playing on graves & end with them being murderers & thieves? Don't you think that's a little ridiculous? This is a healthy way to teach children to not fear death, and to interact with the memory of their loved ones-who probably enjoyed being played on when they were here.

    May 27, 2009 at 12:31 pm |
  34. Lynne

    The article was very specific in stating that the children were well behaved and playing. If they were being unruly, then that is disrespectful. Children, however, should be allowed to play and I can't imagine that the deceased family members/friends would want anything different.

    May 27, 2009 at 12:30 pm |
  35. Kate

    Oh Ed lighten up will ya?!

    May 27, 2009 at 12:27 pm |
  36. Dario

    When I eventually die I want to have a big party with loud music, bright colors and lots of fun. The thought of children dancing on my grave and having fun brings a smile to my face. I am a retired soldier and served two tours and I know that the men and women buried there would agree with me. But then again, I am an NOT religious or fearful of death.

    A life should be celebrated instead of a death being mourned.

    May 27, 2009 at 12:25 pm |
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