Memorial Day: Elephants in the Cemetery

Suzette Standring
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On Memorial Day, an elephant and her calf are shaded by trees as ducks and geese waddle by the pond at Milton Cemetery.  The life-size topiaries are covered in ivy, and the symbolism of their deep family bonds and long memories are the reasons for their art installation in this place of remembrance.  Elephants never forget, and on Memorial Day, neither should we.

Graveside flags flutter red, white, and blue marking those who have died in service to our country.  For me, the quirky sight of ivy-covered elephants freshened a familiar experience of annual honoring.

Recently, I learned elephants mourn their dead. They will stand by a body, sometimes for hours, touching it gently. Scientists observe that fluid from their temporal glands flow when their emotions are elevated. That’s science-speak for elephants cry.  They have intense family ties just like us.

It is said an elephant never forgets, and it’s true.  When two elephants, Shirley and Jenny, saw each other at The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee ( for the first time in over 22 years they recognized each other, trumpeting and caressing each other with joy.

What does this have to do with Memorial Day?

The odd visual of elephants in Milton Cemetery enhanced a remembrance stroll for me.  Every year near Memorial Day I visit the flag-studded graves of the fallen, reading the names, calculating a person’s life span, and wondering about their families.

This time, seeing the elephant topiaries sparked a deeper understanding of suffering.

Many do not know that torture, abuse and long-time chaining is common in training elephants to perform circus tricks.  Elephants crave and need the company of other elephants, and are lonely in zoos. They are gentle, majestic animals with high emotional intelligence that feel, love, grieve and remember things for a long, long time. It was a revelation to read Last Chain on Billie by Carol Bradley about the history and treatment of circus elephants in America.

I transferred a palpable empathy to our fallen warriors as I walked amid the graves in Milton Cemetery, people who were precious and treasured by others. Military men and women, with so much promise ahead, now long gone. I imagined the arrival of terrible news and the profound sense of loss radiating through fathers, mothers, siblings, wives, husbands, children, family and friends, perhaps for decades.  I think about how one grave represents a swath of sorrow for so many, even as countless citizens, including myself, reap the benefits of freedom and protection.

The sight of the elephants caused me to feel more deeply about our fallen warriors, and what it means in terms of emotional and physical costs.  I felt the price that day and we should never forget.