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Recovering the fallen

"To die completely, a person must not only forget, but be forgotten, and he who is not forgotten, is not dead."


Well said by English novelist Samuel Butler, and it's a quote often used in eulogies, obituaries and in memoriams.

It would also be appropriate, however, for one of the creeds of the U.S. military - "no one left behind."

Hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers have died or gone missing in action in this century and the past, from the great world wars and smaller conflicts like the Korean and Vietmanese wars. In more recent times, some soldiers have been the victims of war, such as Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq.

When Americans enlist, they are told of that promise: none left behind.

That promise is manifesting now, in the recovery efforts a U.S. diving team is acting on now in Botwood. They're searching for remains from the victims of military personnel on board the Excalibur, the flying boat that old-time Botwood residents remember crashing in the Bay of Exploits.

When one contemplates the majesty of their task, it's an eerily beautiful form of duty. It is true ritual that doesn't try to minimize death, to make it an empty routine where the dead "pass away" because in Western countries, people don't want to talk about the last mystery of crossing the void.

Shakespeare's Hamlet called it the "undiscovered country, from whose bourne no traveler returns." The divers of the U.S. Navy are hoping to find "souvenirs" of those victims' journey to that country, even something as small as a finger or toe bone, perhaps a tooth, or a larger specimen.

Is there any purpose, however, some have asked in trying to recover such things? Or the spending of the money on something like a repatriation or recovery effect worth it for the sake of the nebulous term "closure?"

If you answer "no, it is just foolishness," you're the one that's wrong. In your accusation, you have run down all who have died, all who celebrate funerals and perhaps even yourself when your friends and family gather to sing your requiem.

There is nothing more annoying than someone who says "I don't do wakes" or "don't go to funerals."

Repatriation has been in the news lately. This past week, remains of some Inuit were finally laid to rest in the Torngat Mountains, where the remains originally came from as part of a university research project.

There's no more appropriate setting than this national park, named after the powerful mountain spirits of Inuit myth. Another emotional ceremony of repatriation in June involved the return of 22 Inuit taken from marked graves more than 80 years ago during a ceremony at the former Moravian mission site at Zoar, south of Nain. The remains were removed from their original graves by anthropologist William Duncan Strong of Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History during the Rawson-MacMillan Sub-Arctic Expedition of 1927-1928. He apparently knew it was wrong, and he and the museum tried to cover it up.

Even the fragments of the dead, no matter what group they belong to, have a spiritual power treasured and honoured in the ancient and modern worlds. They are the reminders of what they are now, and what we will become. John McCrae recognized this truth in his immortal war lyric: "We are the Dead. Short days ago. We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, Loved and were loved, and now we lie, In Flanders Fields."

So it is in Botwood. The U.S. Military also recognizes the importance of bringing the remains of their soldiers home, and the significance of closure for the living.

All of these soldiers were promised they would not be left behind when they joined.

The Botwood recovery shows the power of ritual to honour, to bind together, and to celebrate. As Gilbert Chesterton wrote, there may a time when all are reunited in that undiscovered country someday: "For you and me, and all brave men my brother ...there is good wine poured in the inn at the end of the world."


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