Since its official inception in 1868, Memorial Day (originally called Decoration Day, for the practice of decorating the graves of soldiers with flowers in honor of their sacrifice) has become year after year, less about those who died in battle and more about the fun and mayhem of the summer months which are waiting just around the corner. The day off has become focused on the logistics of food and fun and our parades have become about determining who walks in what order. For many, Memorial Day has lost much of its seriousness and its magnitude.
“I grew up around military bases,” writes Rev. David Takahashi Morris, “I remember Memorial Day as a time when we went over to the fort for a parade and a picnic, and we kids got to climb around on tanks and little jets. A few years later, I remember playing ‘Taps’ on my trumpet, wearing my Boy Scout uniform, standing on a railing above Punchbowl Crater in Honolulu while a few hundred people listened in the military cemetery on the crater floor. It was a powerful experience, and the solemnity of it resonates for me all these years later.
Things have become complicated since then,” he continues, “Vietnam taught me to look critically at war, and later as I learned about the way in which even the ‘great’ wars were open to question, this holiday lost a lot of its luster for me, as it has for many in liberal circles. For many Americans Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf invasions, and for some even the world wars, don’t represent our country’s best values.”
Maybe Takahashi Morris is right, that things have become too complicated to celebrate Memorial Day with a clear vision and a clear conscience. Maybe we’ve become ambivalent about military service and war in general. Maybe we’ve grown skeptical and uneasy around the idea of young adults, barely adults really, dying in foreign lands for reasons not quite clear to us. Maybe we distract ourselves with sales on grills and wading pools, 2-for-1 deals at the grocery and 0% down at the big car dealership because war itself seems so far away and unreal.
Many of us have no memory, nor a full understanding of what it means to be at war, to live with its reality day in and day out as they do in other parts of the world; where the explosions and gun fire and body count are a daily reminder of how precious and fragile our lives are; where the blood stains take days to wear off the streets or the walls of buildings take years to rebuild. We United States citizens are, many of us, insulated from the gruesome truth of a soldiers’ sacrifice.
Thousands of American lives have been lost in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but those countries are a world away and,unless we personally know one of the soldiers, their deaths are abstract tragedies. Not that we feel no compassion or sadness or anger at the loss of them, but we are not in the desert with them, we are not hunting for a clear enemy through treacherous mountains, we are not there in the makeshift hospital tending their wounds, we are not there in their last moments of living. We witness their sacrifice only through the technology of our time. We may watch the caskets being unloaded, we may watch the funerals, but the grisly truth of their death has been cleaned up by the time we see it, it has been distanced by video and commentary and the political posturing of both sides. David Blight tells us:
The young dead soldiers do not speak.
Nevertheless, they are heard in the still houses:
who has not heard them?
They have a silence that speaks for them at night
and when the clock counts.
They say: We were young. We have died.
They say: We have done what we could
but until it is finished it is not done.
They say: We have given our lives but
until it is finished no one can know what our lives gave.
They say: Our deaths are not ours: they
are yours, they will mean what you make them.
They say: Whether our lives and our
deaths were for peace and a new hope or for nothing we
it is you who must say this.
We leave you our deaths. Give them their meaning.
We were young, they say. We have
died; remember us.
What we have lost in the demilitarization of Memorial Day are the soldiers. We have been diverted into behaving as though this day of memory is more about hot dogs and egg salad than about remembering. Remember we must, for to do any less is a disservice not only to those who gave their lives but to what they gave their lives to protect and to support.
There are many stories that tell of the first Decoration Day. Within the annals of history there are some two dozen cities and towns that claim the origins of the tradition as their own. I share with you two such beginnings.
“This…celebration took place in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1865. During the war the city had converted the planters’ horse racing track into an open-air prison for Union soldiers, and at least 257 men had died from exposure and disease and been buried in shallow unmarked graves. As the war ended, local blacks and a few white missionaries and teachers organized a memorial for these unnamed Union dead. David Blight describes this huge event:
“The “First Decoration Day” … involved an estimated ten thousand people, most of them black former slaves. During April, twenty-eight black men from one of the local churches built a suitable enclosure for the burial ground at the Race Course. In some ten days, they constructed a fence ten feet high … and landscaped the graves into neat rows. The wooden fence was whitewashed and an archway was built over the gate … On the arch, painted in black letters, the workmen inscribed, “Martyrs of the Race Course.”
…On May 1, the procession to this special cemetery began as three thousand black schoolchildren … marched around the [graves], each with an armload of roses and singing. The children were followed by three hundred black women… The women carried baskets of flowers, wreaths, and crosses to the burial ground. …A benevolent association of black men, next marched in, followed by large crowds of white and black citizens. All dropped their spring blossoms on the graves in a scene recorded by a newspaper correspondent …
“the holy mounds -- the tops, the sides, and the spaces between them -- were one mass of flowers, not a speck of earth could be seen…”
“[Another] founding story has it that a teenager, Emma Hunter, and her friend, Sophie Keller, decorated Emma’s father’s grave with garden flowers. Dr. Reuben Hunter had recently died serving the Union Army. Nearby, Mrs. Elizabeth Meyer placed flowers on the grave of her son, Private Amos Meyer, who’d died at Gettysburg.
The women got to talking about their loved ones and tending each others’ graves. They agreed that next year they’d decorate all the graves. The following July 4th, the entire town showed up to honor every grave with blossoms and flags. The community drew a clear, bright festival from shared grief and loss.”
It is not important who was the very first, what is important is that Memorial Day was established. Memorial Day is not about division. It is about reconciliation; it is about coming together to honor those who gave their all. We have to go back to where it all began; back to remembering the brutality and the sacrifice; remembering that as Unitarian Universalists we believe, even when it is difficult to do so, that all life is sacred and worthy of remembering. No one deserves to be forgotten who gave their life to what they believed in and it is our duty to honor their deaths as the gifts to us they are. Like the cloud in our reading this morning, our soldiers gave something dear of themselves for us. We must rediscover a way to speak for them for they can no longer speak for themselves. We must separate our discomfort, unease and revulsion of war itself and those who send our young men and women to fight from our compassion for those who take up arms to defend their values even if they are not our values.
Memorial Day requires us to take a moment and pause in order to honor and remember all those, no matter which side of battle they fought on, who gave what Abraham Lincoln called, “the last full measure of devotion.” We are called to offer no less than our gratitude and our respect for lives ended on the battlefield regardless of whether we believed the war they fought was righteous or wrong. It is then left to us to give their deaths meaning by living a ‘new hope.’ “Let us rise up…” wrote Martin Luther King Jr. in his final speech the spring of 1968, “with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination…Let us develop a kind dangerous unselfishness…And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge, to make America what it ought to be.” And to remember.
May it be so.
Memorial Day, a sermon by the Rev. CJ McGregor at 1stUUPB, Sunday, May 24, 2015