[PMC] It was the smell of gunpowder that really got me

(Readin’ time: 4m 39s)

That was not an ordinary funeral.

Those of you that have attended a funeral with military honors are perhaps nodding and saying “yeah, dummy, it’s not. Everybody knows that. There are guns at this kind.”

I found the experience of seeing my grandfather on my father’s side buried at Arlington National Cemetery on May 3 (the same day James Brown was born in 1933!) very moving.

As I was reflecting on the experience later that day on a phone call with Cheryl, my wife, it struck me that it was the purity of the experience that gave it its power.

You’re standing somewhere in a massive cemetery–624 acres, according to history.com–where most of the over 400,000 people buried there shared a singular experience: war. Some died during battle, some like my grandfather died much later but died still bearing the physical and emotional scars of battle and horror and the death of friends and the sudden maiming of friends or self and the madness of seeing a human face no discernibly different than your own attached to a body quite like yours holding a gun like yours they’ll use to kill you for reasons they may or may not understand and may or may not believe in but they’ll do it anyway lest you kill them for the same reasons, some like my grandmother whose coffin they dug up and transferred to Arlington and stacked together in the same burial site as her husband, some who served as non-combat members of the military, some were married to those who served but did not themselves serve, two presidents to round out this company, most everyone buried in identically-sized plots that completely homogenize any differences from life to make the point that in death we truly are equals, marking that death with geometrically identical grave markers differing only in the name inscribed on them and above that a small icon indicating religious adherence. You might think and feel these things when you’re standing in Arlington National Cemetery.

And then at a certain point, a group of 8 people–7 holding rifles and one coordinating their actions–present arms and fire 3×7 shots. They were maybe 200 feet away, but the rifles are pointed up–perhaps at most at a 45 degree angle–and generally aimed towards the funeral party, and they are loud. Shockingly so. Even though you’ve prepared yourself for this, and maybe you’ve fired a rifle yourself before, being more or less on the receiving end of rifle fire is different.

This is where it starts to become an even more intense experience.

Maybe one rifle would not shake you so. But seven of them, fired at precisely the same time… it’s a shock to your nervous system.

I did not know they would be pointed in the direction of the funeral party. Is this how it’s always done? Or was it a by-product of the geometry of the tree the soldiers were standing under and the location of the burial site? I don’t know.

But the effect could not have been more perfectly designed. It creates this incredibly powerful experience. Whether your mind processes it consciously or not, your body and nervous system have been exposed to a tiny, sanitized, ritualized-but-still-incredibly-real-feeling slice of what your dead relative, spouse, or family member might have been exposed to during battle. Or during training. Or perhaps only by proxy exposed to during their time of military service.

Maybe you’re a cooler head than I. Maybe your adrenaline level doesn’t rise after the 7 guns have fired 3 times in quick succession. Or maybe it has an even stronger effect on you.

But then–perhaps the direction of the wind plays an outsized role here–the smell of gunpowder washes over you.

There’s something about that smell that, for me at least, took this whole experience to an unexpected new level.

I’ve been to lots of funerals before. My dad was a preacher for around 30 years, and so he officiated lots of funerals. So I know what funerals are like.

Sure, there are smells. The smell of freshly cut grass. The smell of old-lady perfume. Of hairspray recently applied. Maybe of caked on makeup. Of men’s cologne. Or sometimes of perspiration.

And there are sounds too. The sound of a canvas awning flapping in a breeze. Or of a mechanism lowering a heavy coffin into a hole in the ground. Dirt being sprinkled on a metal or wooden box. Of people clearing their throat. Or shifting their weight from one leg to another. Or sobbing gently. Of copier paper rustling as human hands hold it or it’s moved by a light breeze. Sometimes the sound of singing; shy, reluctant, valiantly trying, and occasionally unreservedly belting it out.

But wow, the acrid pungent smell of gunpowder.

It’s not much of a leap from that smell to the other smells my grandfather must have experienced in World War II.

The smell of heavy machine oil on equipment. Of exhaust fumes from machinery that definitely did not have to pass an Oregon DEQ emissions inspection. Of all kinds of explosives, perhaps even of the German-made grenade that lodged shrapnel in his leg. Perhaps even of the gun he fired at German soldiers. Almost certainly the smell of the blood of people he knew relatively well. Perhaps the smell of a meal they’d eaten recently that was now mixed with bloody entrails on the ground. Definitely the smell of human excrement, intentionally deposited in a latrine in the field but also that which is released uncontrollably around the time of death and that which is almost certainly deposited elsewhere out of necessity while on maneuvers.

I smelt just the gunpowder in Arlington. But if you think at all about the reality and the full context of war, you can’t help but link the smell of gunpowder with this ocean of other smells that soldiers in combat during that time would have experienced.

And then you might feel the entire weight of what war is, bearing down on your soul. Every gram, ounce, kilogram, and ton of it. All of the fear, crying, terror, anger, hatred, cunning, and stupidity. All the planning and deadly mistakes and deadly victories.

You might look for just a moment past the nationalism, xenophobia, division, solidarity, greed, nobility, smallness and hugeness of it.

And you might be–for a moment or for the rest of your life–changed by the purity and power of the experience.

As I am.

-P