Happy Memorial Day! Have you heard the greeting on TV or seen it on Facebook this weekend? It always bothers me when I see it because the word “memorial’ generally connotes something other than “happy” — or at least it ought to. I understand that most people who proffer the greeting do so perfectly innocently, wishing upon their friends a pleasant holiday weekend spent barbecuing or shopping for mattresses. But whenever I hear the flippant greeting, my mind goes back to the trip our family made to our local national cemetery last year on Memorial Day. We went there to visit the grave of my husband’s grandfather, Ivan Kerr, a WWII veteran who had marched across Europe during the Battle of the Bulge, and also to pay tribute to those who had paid the ultimate price for our freedom.
It was a gorgeous Ohio day with a cloudless blue sky and row upon row of grave markers decorated with small American flags, courtesy of the local Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. We arrived several hours after the official Memorial Day ceremony, after the crowds had dispersed. People were wandering around the cemetery, some looking like they had a purpose and others, like our family, reading the headstones and thinking about the individual lives and families and stories they represented. In the distance we heard a lone bugler playing “Taps.” There were no funerals or ceremonies going on, so we were left to wonder whether he played to honor a fallen friend or if he just played as a simple act of patriotism to pay tribute to all the fallen heroes, unknown to him, who lay beneath the tiny flags and white marble markers.
And then we saw the tragic little family picnic gathered around a headstone on the hill. There was couple in their 50s and a boy who looked to be around 10 years old. And a young woman. They had brought lawn chairs and a cooler with food and drinks and looked like they planned to spend the day at the cemetery — with a fallen loved one. The teary-faced young woman (a widow, I assumed) was curled up in a ball in her chair and her pain spilled out onto the cemetery grounds like dandelion fluff on that beautiful May day. I looked away — I felt embarrassed to be intruding into such a personal family moment. It seemed so inappropriate to be walking carefree through the cemetery while that little family was in the midst of unthinkable suffering and loss.
And yet, this family’s public display of grief is exactly the kind of “memorial” that we need to stare in the face and not avert our eyes from on Memorial Day.
I’m not suggesting that we creep around cemeteries looking for family grief to intrude upon. But, I think it’s important to take time amid the distractions of the “holiday” weekend to contemplate the very real price that some families have borne in order to secure our freedom and to be grateful for their sacrifice.
In March of 1862, a committee of men from DeWitt County, Illinois, set off in search of soldiers from their area rumored to have been killed in a battle during the fall of Fort Donelson. It had been one of the first significant Union victories, but both sides had incurred heavy casualties. Soldiers were buried where they fell and the survivors wrapped their slain comrades in their own blankets before laying them in coffins made from wood scavenged from the ceiling of an old warehouse. The committee obtained a special dispensation from General Sherman to travel across the war-torn states to retrieve the bodies of the four men they wanted to bring home.
A man named George Gideon generously donated an acre of land where his own son, who had perished in the war a year before, was buried to be used as a burial plot for the war heroes. New walnut caskets were prepared and thousands came to pay their respect as the men lay in state.
Their features were not distorted; they had all been shot through the head and death came to them with the suddenness of the lightning’s flash. Mothers and sisters wept over and kissed the cold clay of those who went forth from their presence full of life and hope and courage. And many a man, whose eyes were unused to tears, felt the gathering drops coursing down his cheeks as he looked upon the upturned faces of the noble dead.
The funeral oration was delivered by Hon. L. Weldon, who said,
All of these men were private soldiers, and in all probability will not live in the written history of this great struggle. Let you and I remember to the last hour of life the name of a Rogers, a Day, a Malone, a Walcott, a Page and a Gideon, who have given their lives as a free will offering upon the altar of their troubled country. This spot, with its virgin soil, its elevations of plain, its drooping boughs, is not unfit to be the resting-place of departed worth. Before these trees shall again don their green coronal of leaves let us erect upon this spot a monument, which by its solidity and polish, will stand a memorial of our government, and those whose lives were sacrificed on the banks of the Cumberland that the blessings of freedom might be enjoyed by the latest generations. My friends, let us often retire to this solitude to drink anew the inspiration of patriotism, for there is no act of the American citizen so well calculated to teach lessons of patriotic love as is the bravery and devotion of the common soldier beneath the flag of his country.
Mr. Weldon explained to the mourners that monuments and acts of remembrance played an important role in carrying the mantle of patriotism and teaching future generations about the “blessings of freedom.” He admonished them to recall often the price six families from their congregation had paid to secure that blessing.
Weldon’s message is as important today as it was on that March afternoon in 1862. On this Memorial Day, may we be mindful of those who, as Lincoln said, “gave the last full measure of devotion” under the flag of the United States to preserve the blessing of liberty we enjoy.
And may we take a moment to pray for those who grieve for lost comrades and loved ones.
At Arlington Cemetery today, a young woman will spend the day with her fallen husband, her children in tow who will be too young to remember their daddy.
A mother will sit in her son’s bedroom, lying on his childhood bed, weeping for the wife he will never bring home and the grandchildren she will never rock.
At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall, a survivor from another era feels the wounds of war as if they were inflicted yesterday. He will rub a pencil over the paper to trace the familiar name, and will remember the buddy who never came home.
And somewhere in a Walmart parking lot, a WWII veteran hobbling along with the aid of a walker will be surprised to see a man and his young son standing at attention and saluting him because they noticed the WWII insignia on his hat.* He will muster every ounce of strength in his frail body and straighten to return the salute and in that moment he will remember that day he stormed the beach at Normandy. With a tear in his eye he will know that a grateful nation has not forgotten the boys whose blood was spilled on those shores — the boys who fought for the “blessings of freedom” and are now buried beneath rows of crosses on a hill overlooking Omaha Beach.
Freedom is indeed preposterously, devastatingly expensive.
Pray for the families for which this is not a “Happy Memorial Day.” Perhaps you can go a step further — show your gratitude by offering practical assistance to a family of a fallen hero or making a donation to an organization that provides assistance to Gold Star Families.
And whatever else you do today, take a moment to remember. Out of gratitude for the “blessings of freedom” — remember.
*Credit to my friend Jeff Sanders for this story about an experience he had with his son in a Walmart parking lot (a bit of artistic license taken with the veteran’s feelings). Listen to Sanders’ account and the rest of an excellent Memorial Day program from the American Policy Roundtable on The Public Square.