Mason Field School Offers Up-Close and Personal Look at Arlington National Cemetery Operations
By Tara Laskowski
The millions of visitors each year who wander through the rows of iconic white graves dotting the hillside at Arlington National Cemetery might not realize all the hard work that goes on behind the scenes at the country’s most famous burial site.
But a small group of George Mason University ethnography students do understand.
As part of a fieldwork course this summer, 12 undergraduate and graduate students conducted the first-ever occupational documentation of Arlington National Cemetery. The collection, “The Cultures of Work at Arlington National Cemetery,” features oral histories with key cemetery staff and detailed accounts of how the implementation of new workplace technologies have transformed day-to-day operations at the cemetery.
Over the course of several weeks, students in the Field School for Cultural Documentation interviewed employees of the cemetery in all divisions—from public affairs to grounds workers. They talked with the folks responsible for digging, tending to, and marking the graves. They interviewed engineers and turf specialists. They talked with the officials who plan events and help grieving families.
The result of their efforts will be permanently archived in the Library of Congress and the Veterans History Project.
“The Field School for Cultural Documentation offers students a firsthand opportunity to learn about the work that professional folklorists actually do, such as ethnographic research and cultural documentation, and then provides them an opportunity to replicate a field research project,” says Mason English professor Debra Lattanzi Shutika, who has been teaching this summer course for three years. “Students learn how to plan, implement, and conduct research, and they also learn about the challenges of working in teams and a local community.”
Students in the field school are trained and guided by scholars from the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. In 2011 and 2012, the field school worked with a neighborhood of Arlington County, Virginia. Shutika also took a group of students to West Virginia in May 2012 for a one-week field school as part of her Appalachian Folklore course.
“The course is set up like a short-term contract job,” says Shutika. “The students learn life skills. They gain confidence in their abilities to deal with professionals. All this work translates directly to resume points.”
“This course is not for the fainthearted,” says Belinda Molloy, a senior English major. “Going out in the field to conduct research is fun, but hours must be spent recording and preserving the data collected. For this study, organizing interviews during the workday with busy people was a challenge, but it was an incredible opportunity to see the behind-the-scenes workings of the most important national landmark and military cemetery in the country.”
Melissa Beard, a PhD student in the Cultural Studies Program, shadowed employees in the Engineering Division, which consisted of two active military men (a chief warrant officer and lieutenant colonel), as well as two civilian women and four civilian men. Two of those men were retired military.
“Before I started the field school, I always thought of Arlington [National Cemetery] as just a tourist destination. I was surprised to see how much goes into the day-to-day operations of the cemetery,” she says. “In the engineering department, there are often days when an emergency situation will appear, such as a sinkhole in the road or a broken gas line. These are aspects [of the work] that people don’t think about.”
In 2010, Arlington National Cemetery came under scrutiny for mismanaging gravesites and burial records. Three years later, the students were surprised to see the stunning turnaround in management practices and the modernization of record keeping and organization. They wanted to document that process and the way that employees felt about their jobs.
“There is a unique culture of work here with two distinct purposes,” says Shutika. “The cemetery is a tourist destination, and so the employees need to educate the public about the history of the place. But the second, and equally significant, piece here is to serve grieving families. How the employees go about making decisions and creating priorities is really interesting.”
Arlington National Cemetery sees itself primarily as a working cemetery, Shutika explains. Even though there are more than 20 funerals each day at the cemetery, a tourist may never realize the ceremonies are going on because the employees take such care to ensure that grieving families have privacy. “It is their top priority,” she says.
The students documented not only their day-to-day work duties, but also the culture and interactions with each other. What jokes do they tell? How do they talk to one another? How do they work together?
“What we as ethnographers are interested in is the organizational folklore here,” says Shutika. “We look at this idea of ceremony, tradition, routine, and how it functions in this specific space. It’s a fascinating process.”
“This has been one of the best courses I have taken at Mason,” says Beard. “I not only enjoyed the content and organization of the field school, but I love the hands-on approach of ethnographic practice. It is much better than sitting in a classroom and debating about theory for three hours.”
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