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FIRST-PERSON: How a military funeral affirmed my beliefs on human dignity

Marine Capt. Edward Glenn Walker was buried with full military honors 78 years after his death in WW II. Photo courtesy of Walker's family.

NASHVILLE (BP) – This July my family witnessed the return of my grandmother’s beloved brother, U.S. Marine Capt. Edward Glenn Walker, from an unmarked grave in the South Pacific.

Interestingly, Walker already had a grave in my hometown in Lebanon, Tenn. Another Marine’s body mistakenly was sent home to my great-grandmother in 1947 and buried in our family plot. Only in 2020 was my family notified of the error and plans made to correct it.

A graduate of the University of Tennessee and a student at Harvard Law School, Walker first enrolled in the military in 1940. He rose through the Marine ranks and was made a captain in 1942. As commander of Company E of the 2nd Battalion of the 2nd Marines, he led his men into what became known as the bloodiest battle of the Pacific War, the Battle of Tarawa. Walker would die Nov. 20, 1943, along with more than 1,100 others after four intense days of fighting. He was 26 years old.

The disastrous scene proved impossible for the proper identification and burial of all of those killed in battle. My great uncle’s body would end up in National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu. The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) contacted my father, Lane Martin, in March 2020, and we were able to bring him home in July 2021 with full military honors. The U.S. Marine Corps led our family through a dignified transfer and military funeral for Walker. In addition, they exhumed and escorted the body of the unknown Marine back to the lab in Hawaii for identification and, hopefully, reunification with his family.

The experience of bringing home my grandmother’s brother and the process of participating in the funeral for “our Marine” has allowed me to embody and consider some of my biblical and pro-life convictions in a profound way.

The sanctity of life is transcendent, extending beyond a person’s natural death.

Many places in the scriptures refer to the death and burial of certain individuals. In Genesis 50:1 Joseph grieves over his dead father, Jacob, and carries his bones to the burial place of his ancestors. In Psalm 79, the nations who have defied God are those who have “left the dead bodies of your servants as food for the birds of the sky, the flesh of your own people for the animals of the wild.” And the body of Christ himself was lovingly cared for after his death by Joseph of Arimathea and the women who were planning to attend to him on Resurrection Sunday.

The honor, care and precision with which the U.S. Marines treated the casket of Walker was a physical representation of the dignity of the person. Marine Capt. Nick Richardson personally accompanied Walker from Hawaii to Tennessee and then escorted the unknown Marine back to Hawaii. Dozens of veterans escorted the hearse from the Nashville airport and saluted the casket in the same manner as they would a living Marine. It was a moving and honor-filled sight to behold more than 100 men and women lining the aisle at the funeral to do so, one by one.

Grief and loss are an expected part of this life.

Those military are keenly aware of the difficult realities of life and death that so many try to ignore. They are prepared with scripts and rituals to help guide us through the experience of grief that comes with loss – grief that the writers of the scriptures acknowledge in places like Lamentations, Job and the Psalms.

The military funeral was filled with rituals that have been preserved and practiced by multitudes of people, some of which have spanned centuries. It is moving to consider how my family has now joined this community, anchored in these shared experiences. I’ll never forget the way the sound of the bagpipes playing “Amazing Grace” filled my chest on that hot July day or the unexpected emotion of watching four helicopters fly in the “Missing Man” formation with my 6-year-old son at my side.

Dignity is due to everyone, despite any descriptor or metric.

We know that every person, born or unborn, is created in the image of God as described in Genesis 1:27. Each one’s value is inherent, which brings equality to all who are human. The consistent and equal display of honor and respect to all people in military funerals dissolves the world’s usual dividing lines. This expression is reflective of the instruction in 1 Peter 2:17 to “honor everyone.” This is God’s will, and we do this in response to the imago Dei within them.

We were created to exist in families.

Only one of my father’s cousins, who was a small child in 1947, remembers Walker’s original funeral. Yet, this loss almost 80 years ago has reverberated through my family for generations, and Walker’s story was one we all knew in some part. My grandmother regularly reminded me that I was a Walker (her maiden name).

At the funeral and afterward, veterans and active military thanked us for our sacrifice, acknowledging the connection we have to Walker. The closest living relative received the flag at the close of the graveside service. This gesture is fitting because it demonstrates the ultimate reason so many of that great generation went to war – to protect and preserve the ones they loved and future generations. Russell Moore writes, “Family points us away from itself to the kingdom of God, to the Gospel of that kingdom, and, behind all of that, to the triune God Himself.” God gave His son in order to redeem and rescue the lost, all as a demonstration of love.

The Battle of Tarawa was the first American offensive in the central Pacific region and the first time in the Pacific War that the United States faced serious Japanese opposition to an amphibious landing. Japanese Adm. Keiji Shibasaki, commander of the highly fortified garrison on the island, was reportedly so confident in his position that he claimed it would take 1 million Americans 100 years to take control of the atoll. It took the U.S. Marines 76 hours.

Although I do not know all that those Marines understood in the early morning of Nov. 20, 1943, they were certainly aware of the great risk to their lives and the lives of those under their command. Yet, they faithfully followed the commands given to them and many sacrificed their lives. My family has often pondered all the things Walker could have accomplished in his life, had he lived. Those are honors he would never know. I’ll forever remember his sacrifice when I read Philippians 2:3-8:

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility consider others as more important than yourselves. Everyone should look not to his own interests, but rather to the interests of others. Adopt the same attitude as that of Christ Jesus, who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited. Instead he emptied himself by assuming the form of a servant, taking on the likeness of humanity. And when he had come as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death—even to death on a cross.”

The 2021 funeral for Capt. Edward Glenn Walker has become one of the defining moments of my life for many reasons. As I looked around the room that day, I considered so many things – my family, my community, my country – and experienced an immense amount of gratitude. Yet, I knew there were even greater truths about eternal things revealed, rooted in an eternal God, that were just as present as well: the dignity of all people, the honor of self-giving and the power of love that transcends time. The veteran and military communities, including our Marine, have inspired me to embody these convictions in new ways, and I hope they do the same for you.

You can learn more about Marine Capt. Edward Glenn Walker in this short documentary

    About the Author

  • Jill Waggoner