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January 21, 2021 1 Comment


I had the privilege of going to Arlington National Cemetery to attend the internment of a friend’s father who was being honored for his service. His body was being moved to its rightful place at Arlington. The ritual was amazing, but then rituals are miraculous—other worldly by their nature. The repetition of specific routines over and over, time and again to acknowledge one of life’s milestones takes on its own power. That power is what makes being part of or watching rituals so profound. 

Waiting for the service to begin, we were drawn to and mesmerized by the “soldiers from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, known as ‘The Old Guard,’ who stand watch over the Tomb”*1 and walk back and forth at attention to protect the tomb of the unknown soldier.

It didn’t take long to wonder how exactly this ceremony was created and what it meant. I knew they were walking 21 steps in either direction but I hadn’t realized that the number 21 was the structure that holds the entire ritual together. 

“The Guard marches 21 steps down the black mat behind the Tomb, turns and faces east for 21 seconds, turns and faces north for 21 seconds, and then takes 21 steps down the mat. Next, the Guard executes a sharp ‘shoulder-arms’ movement to place his/her weapon on the shoulder closest to the visitors, signifying that he or she stands between the Tomb and any possible threat.”*2

Engrossed in the ceremony I heard someone next to me whisper, “Do you know where the number 21 comes from?” I looked over to see an older gentleman speaking to me. “No”, I replied. He looked at me with a boyish smile as he prepared to explain the mystery happening before us. “It is the sum of the date 1776.” He paused, looked to see if I was paying attention, and then continued, “1 plus 7 equals 8, 8 plus 7 equals 15, and 15 plus 6 equals 21.” He nodded slightly as he watched the wonder fill my face. “It’s wonderful isn’t it?”

He proceeded to introduce himself as a US Marine who had served with the gentleman who we were all there to honor. 

I was struck by the symmetry and symbolism that made this ritual so profoundly powerful.

The miracle of rituals is that they are larger and far more powerful than the parts that make them up. We don’t need to understand them but by just experiencing them we know they have power that connects us to something universal that we need to experience.

Excited to share this memory with you, I started researching the “21” history on the internet. To my great disappointment I couldn’t find it. Instead, I found that the number 21 symbolizes the highest symbolic military honor that can be bestowed: the 21-gun salute.”

I mentioned this to my husband, Mark, who was present that day at Arlington and we got into a discussion about the symbolism and our interchange with this gentleman. Mark’s response: “He was a US Marine, I’m not sure I would doubt him, and 1776 does add up to 21!”

Maybe the 21-gun salute comes from 1776. I don’t know but it’s a good story and I’m not ready to let go of that perfect symmetry and think that it is just a coincidence.

Do you know?

Are you as moved by symbolism and rituals as I am? What are the ceremonies that are important to you?

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*1 Quote from Arlington National Cemetery website
*2 Quote from Arlington National Cemetery website

1 Response

Adrisse Brandt
Adrisse Brandt

January 25, 2021

Thank you for sharing this amazing experience. I really enjoyed learning more about that particular ritual and loved your interaction with the older gentleman.

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