What is the right way to celebrate Memorial Day? To celebrate, at least in its older meaning, is to observe with ceremonies of respect. Those who have died in war deserve solemn respect and profound honor, but not glorification. Glorifying their deaths demeans them by using them to glorify war itself.
It is often said that we owe to them the freedom we now enjoy, but that doesn’t seem right. So many died in places and for causes that had little to do with our personal freedom or national security. We glibly call them heroes. That doesn’t seem right either. I don’t think they wanted to die, didn’t intend to die, and few died heroically, at least not in the usual way we think of things heroic. Moreover, not all who died in war, died on the battlefield. Many returned alive but with some deep part of their soul killed, never to be restored to wholeness. We owe them our best efforts to prevent wars in which others would die.
It is time to reject millennia of glorifying death in battle. It isn’t glorious. It is the price paid by some for the human hubris, greed, and selfishness of others. To be sure, we have confronted human hubris, greed, and selfishness to fight wars defending the world against conquest by forces of evil. We have also fought our own wars of conquest, subjugating peoples to create a new nation from coast to coast. We fought a terrible civil war to determine whether a nation dedicated to the equality of all ‘men’ could long endure (Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address). We have fought wars of questionable justification and purpose, costing much and gaining little. The dead of each deserve our ceremonies of respect offering grateful thanks and profound apologies.
It is right and a good thing for us to pause each year for a national day to remember the high cost of war and honor those who paid with their lives. Placing flags at headstones, pausing to say each name, is a tradition in the right direction. Offering prayers of confession and contrition for our human inability to live in peace with one another, is another. I wonder about other ways. Everything comes to a stop on military bases at the end of the day when retreat is sounded and the flag is lowered. If a flag can be honored with a moment of silence, imagine the entire nation stopping everything for a full minute on memorial day. Across the continent bells would ring, sirens would sound, traffic and activities would stop for sixty seconds, people would stand in silence, not to salute a flag, but to remember the lives of those who died in the nation’s battles.
Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart, and especially the hearts of the people of this land, that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace. (BCP 823)