In May 2001, I was serving a small congregation in a small town in North Georgia known for being the site of the very first gold rush in the United States, the same gold that went into burnishing the gold dome that is our state capitol here in Atlanta. That and our state military college. That and an Army Ranger Camp nearby and a neo-Nazi encampment a few miles further.
In my Memorial Day Sunday sermon, I noted that in one local newspaper here in the Metro area, in a section called Streetalk, the roving reporter had asked several people what they believed the purpose of Memorial Day was and whether they thought it was a meaningful holiday. All three of the people interviewed associated this day on some level with remembering those who died in military service, but in all three cases their own observance seemed, if not completely disconnected, at least muddied.
One woman responded that her grandfather was a P.O.W., a prisoner of war. He was shot down, she said, somewhere in Asia, and to this day he wouldn’t eat rice. Her dad was a vet, she told the reporter, his best friend was killed in Vietnam, and her brother was named for him. So, she said, it meant a lot to her, because of her family history. She said she planned on calling her father and grandfather. And she added nonchalantly, that she also planned to go to Universal Studios because she had a long weekend and she had never been to Orlando. There it is, I said, your typical contemporary Memorial Day. A three minute phone call followed by a three day mini vacation. Because since the passage of the National Holiday Act of 1971 which insures that all federal holidays fall over a three day weekend, it is now observed/celebrated on the last Monday in May rather on a specific date.
That year, the American movie industry was counting opportunistically on the tie-in, however thin, between this long holiday weekend and war memories as virtually the only new movie opening was Pearl Harbor, a $135 million Disney studio epic.
In a 35-minute sequence of the movie, the events of that day were vividly and violently reenacted, the sudden horror of the unprovoked attack on the sleeping Pacific fleet based in Hawaii that led finally to our involvement in World War II. More than 3,000 American men and women, more than a thousand of whom are still entombed in the Battleship Arizona, unable to be rescued in life or death.
Veterans of Pearl Harbor who were given a special preview viewing of the film before the official opening had mixed reactions, some saying it was completely realistic, some hoping it would renew patriotism, some hoping it would remind people of the chaos and death of that horrific day all those many years ago now.
A war in which some 287,000 Americans died, many buried in military cemeteries, others in what are called officially isolated graves, others reported but never located, or missing in action. Most of them young men, barely adults, for whom before The War death had been a vague notion. Not something they spent much or any time thinking about, let alone preparing for.
That war, of course, had not been the last war fought before that Memorial Day in 2001. There had been the Korean War a few short years following the end of World War II, in which some 34,000 American military died. And, of course, the undeclared Vietnam War, which crept up on us beginning in 1955 — only months, really, after the end of the conflict in Korea, which lasted, all tolled, twenty years, with almost 60,000 dead in battle on our side, and as in any war great and grievous losses of lives, military and civilian, on the other.
And then, for a few years, with the exception of a few smaller conflicts, a time of respite from the war deaths, not in the world, but for this country.
May 2001. Memorial Day 2001. A time of almost peace, a time when we went to the movies to remember what war was about, Hollywood-style.
In the Georgia mountain town where I served as minister — that weekend, that day, even while active battle was blessedly in a kind of remission — it was still hard to forget what this holiday was about, that it had something to do with war and death. Red, white, and blue crosses dotted the sides of the highway and circled the town square with the names of the men and even some women and the wars they were involved in: mostly World War II, some in Korea, and like small towns in rural areas everywhere, quite a few in Vietnam.
Memorial Day and otherwise, little crosses by the roadside were pretty familiar sights around those parts, in most parts, really, decorated with mementos and flowers, some real, some plastic. Often the places where teenagers have been killed in deadly car crashes, ones they have been innocent victims of, or ones they have directly caused by drinking too much or driving too fast, or often both.
No matter, once they have died, because now that they are gone, they are still loved and missed always, and needing always to be remembered. Even after the wooden crosses weather and crumble and flowers wither or disintegrate. Like the flowers placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers alike on what was originally called Decoration Day.
I thought about that Memorial Day in 2001 this week, recalling the crosses and bunting circling the town, a town born of the discovery of gold and kept solvent by the training of military men and women.
And wondered how many more dozens of crosses would be pounded into the red dirt for tomorrow’s observance — symbolizing the loss of how many more young people in the continuous combat that followed the horrors of 9-11-2001, in Iraq and Afghanistan, in what is sometimes called the War on Terror — with its 7,000 American combat dead and untold others.
How many graves dug. How many voices stilled, legacies lost.
The young soldiers, as in the poem by Archibald MacLeish, who do not speak, who say we leave you our deaths, give them their meaning. And the meaning of their lives as well, as they were not given the spaciousness of years to do so themselves.
On Friday afternoon of this Memorial Day Weekend, my husband and I left our neighborhood, where the beginning of this holiday is now also the end of the school year, with the sounds of children shrieking and splashing in portable wading pools and circling the block on bikes and skateboards ringing in our ears, for an hour spent in the Decatur Cemetery, a quiet park, a major greenspace and the burial ground for politicians, educators, authors, doctors, musicians, and soldiers from every war from the American Revolution to 21st century conflicts.
We walked there in search of the gravestones of soldiers, wondering whether they would be decorated, and how.
Wondering if their deaths would be memorialized with any sort of epitaph, a short text honoring a deceased person carved on a headstone.
Of these, we found very few. Hundreds of graves on grassy knolls dotted with massive white oak trees; stones of many kinds, from simple and crumbling to elaborate and well maintained. Here and there a few planted pink azaleas and multi-colored pots of seasonal flowers. The ubiquitous plastic flowers. The miniature American flags.
A teddy bear. Toy soldiers. Family plots with three generations resting now together. Some with tiny markers poignantly etched with the words Daughter or Son. Stones with military symbols and the name of the war the deceased fought in. Graves of the very old, the teenager, the school child, the one-day-old infant.
Names and dates of birth and death. Here and there inscribed biblical verses and familiar quotes: True Love Endures Forever said one. To Know Him was to Love Him said another.
A line from a famous poem by Tennyson: God gives us love, Something to love he lends us.
And on the rest, blankness. About the rest, silence.
Unitarian minister Carl Seaburg, in his classic book Great Occasions, readings for celebrations of birth, Coming of Age, marriage, and death, observes the human necessity to use the occasion of the death of an individual to restate the relationship between ourselves and what we value, and between an individual and others. He talks about our need to remind ourselves that it is good to have lived, that death fits into life, and helps it make what little sense it does, and all remains well with Life and the universe.
This, at a time when half the populace are convinced that death is, in Seaburg’s words, the end or time to go, a quarter believing that it is a preparation for another life, and the other quarter, agnostic about this, unsure. The finality of death giving its occasion greater significance, the sense of completion, of end statements.
Of leaving behind legacy, not only of material gifts, but gifts of meaning and purpose. What did we learn from this life and how might it teach others how to live more fully, more richly, more righteously?
It is perhaps because of this that there seems to have sprung up a kind of literary industry around more and better preparation for death, whether will-making kits, estate planning, or memorial preparation, including advice on how to select the right quotation, poem, or passage spoken as a tribute — that paints a picture of his or her life and living, either by describing particular characteristics of the deceased, reflects what those in attendance would say to the departed one by way of a farewell, or would be a reflection of what the honoree would say to those attending the service by way of a benediction.
A benediction. Not a self-epitaph — not a six-word memoir summarizing one’s life or sense of one’s life, funny and pithy ones like “painful nerd kid,” “happy nerd adult,” or “Birth, Childhood, Adolescence, Adolescence, Adolescence, Adolescence.” Or even moving ones, like “Years in the Closet, Why? Why?” or “It was worth it. I think.”
A benediction, which means literally “good speaking.” It is a pronouncement of a blessing upon another. We are familiar with these if we came from Jewish and Christian faith communities. We are familiar with these from the endings of wedding ceremonies and funerals. We are familiar with these in our own Unitarian Universalist tradition, where old and new hymnals contain many much used ones, from “May the Lord Bless Us and Keep Us, may the Lord’s face shine upon us and be gracious unto us and give us peace,” from Hebrew scripture, to “Be Ye Lamps unto yourselves, be your own confidence, hold to the truth within yourselves as the only lamp,” from Buddhism.
It’s what we would say to those we leave behind about what we wish for them and for our nation and planet. It’s the “May you go forth” language we speak with joined hands and hearts.
Those dead young soldiers throughout our history and into the present were too often stripped, cheated of the possibility of creating their own Benediction, the closing words they would leave behind following a longer life and more spacious death. The children in classrooms in Connecticut and Oklahoma. The workers in textile factories in Bangladesh. All those caught in war or by the exploitation of labor or gun violence or climate change. Gone too soon.
One does not necessarily have to be fully grown to understand the imperative to offer our own benediction. In Obit, a collection of background stories written by newspaper obituary writer Jim Sheeler, he writes about Daniel Seltzer, a 15-year-old boy who died of an undetected heart condition. What he left behind was sheet of notebook paper with his own Code of Morals, among them this: Remember, but do not worship the past; live for, but not only for, the present; prepare for, but do not panic about, the future.
Death will come, it will come to the newborn and the very old. It will come after a long waiting or suddenly. We cannot stop its inevitability. We can do what we can to prevent unnecessary loss, premature loss, violent loss, needless loss.
Perhaps this is my benediction. (It’s the May We Go Forth.) To bear witness always with our minds and hearts.
May your life be a benediction, a guidepost, and a blessing.