On Monday, Memorial Day 2007, Vickie and I went to American Village to attend the Gold Star Memorial Service in the chapel for fallen servicemen and women who have died since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have begun. I went because my friend Marynell Winslow, with whom I collaborated on a song about her fallen son Ryan (which many of you heard last November when she and George came to our church on a Wednesday evening around Veteran’s Day). It was sung beautifully at the beginning of the service by a talented young soloist from Nashville.
Later, family members or representatives of the families walked one by one to the front and laid a single rose across a pair of combat boots as a symbol of the one whose full name was called. As the roses piled higher and higher and you heard that list of names, one at a time, there was time to think about each family, each person, and who they were—what did they dream? What was it like for them?
Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day. It is a day of remembrance for those who have died in the service of our nation. According to a website on its observance, how it began is mysterious.
There are many stories as to its actual beginnings, with over two dozen cities and towns laying claim to being the birthplace of Memorial Day. There is also evidence that organized women’s groups in the South were decorating graves before the end of the Civil War: a hymn published in 1867, “Kneel Where Our Loves are Sleeping” by Nella L. Sweet carried the dedication “To The Ladies of the South who are Decorating the Graves of the Confederate Dead.”
Memorial Day was officially proclaimed on 5 May 1868 by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, in his General Order No. 11, and was first observed on 30 May 1868, when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery.
To a mother whose son has died, nothing can give complete comfort. To know that he died for a good cause, as a patriot, as a loyal soldier, even with the gratitude of the nation, is meaningful. But there is still that terrible void—the child she held in her arms, taught to walk and talk and pray and play, is gone.
I think about those families during this week. However their deaths came, for each family this was deeply personal, irreplaceable, terrible and relentless.
Remembering is a holy act. Death is a doorway into that mystery called eternity—a door that opens only one way for us. In the anguish of loss, we search for meaning, for hope, for comfort. At the very least, to be remembered is a moment of relief. It is good for us to place a hand on the parent of a son or daughter who died and say, “We remember. And we are sad, too.” Death is terrible enough, and grief is its horrid companion. At the least we should not have to bear it alone or without a sense that our loved one’s life really mattered.
Memorial Day was a time for me to reflect, not just on this war, but on all wars we have endured. The price is always enormous. I miss my World War II veterans and Korean War veterans. If they had seen these angry people walking around our streets with guns, threatening one another when we should be pulling together. They would have shaken their heads. They knew what it is really like.
The toll is deeper than we know. It is good to pause and remember and count the cost. It is good to understand that in all that we do, there are those from among us who cannot sit comfortably and do it. They carry a heavy load.
I am reminded to pray a little harder for peaceful solutions, to be slow to anger and quick to forgive, to pray for safe returns, for just outcomes, for intelligence to prevail over impulse and rage against each other, for healing and effective grief, for a more thankful heart, for emotional restoration. And to appreciate those who do the hard part of democracy.
But most of all, I have been pondering about widening out Memorial Day this year a little more to include a different war, against an invisible virus, taking some of our brightest and best and too many people who are loved from us. It makes no distinctions at all as we do with one another. And most of all I think of the soldiers in this war, doctors, nurses, dedicated researchers and healthcare professionals, farmers and ordinary truck drivers and workers and factory employees risking themselves to feed us, retail workers who have to ask us too much to abide by some simple courtesies, a little irritation and inconvenience, just for the privilege of shopping for what we need in a world where even now we have ten times what most others in the world could dream of.
I hope we’re up to it. But it may require, as Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman said, that we first grieve our losses before we can be sane about resuming life. I hope we don’t skip over the remembering, as painful as it might be. Because there is also joy in the remembering. And you don’t get the joy without the sorrow. If there are no parades this year, let it not keep us from remembering, honoring, mourning, and giving thanks. Be grateful for every act of sacrifice for the greater good, no matter how small.