As the Memorial Day weekend approaches, I’m aware of how many people will visit cemeteries to remember loved ones whose exit from this world ushered into their lives a heavy sorrow they would carry for the rest of their days.
Strictly speaking, Memorial Day is a holiday that was established to honor those who had died while serving in the U.S. Military. It was instituted after the civil war, also known as the war between the states, depending on whether you hail from the north or the south.
It also marks the unofficial beginning of summer, and is known for big sales and trips to the beach and picnics.
And while I have engaged in the picnics this weekend promises, I have only participated a few times in the ritual that is the point of this holiday. Still, once experienced, it is a ritual one does not soon forget.
From sea to shining sea this weekend, people will go to cemeteries. Some will make this pilgrimage by the car-full; many will go with a friend who knows what not to say; most will drive alone, car radios off.
They drive slowly, once they are within the gates, past the cemetery entrance. Inside the gates, a quiet counters the birds who still sing, the buzz of lawnmowers, the whir of traffic. They arrive at the grave of the one they came to honor, park on the uneven path, and creep from their hybrids and pick-ups and minivans, clutching fresh-cut yellow roses; red carnations wrapped in cellophane; and miniature star-spangled flags. Quietly, they walk closer to the plot as if they might wake the one whose body rests there.
At first, they look for offenses that must be made right. Weeds encroaching are pulled. Mud splashed onto the stone is wiped away. Previously left flowers, now fallen from the heat are replaced.
It doesn’t take long. Occasionally, someone might sit, even lie, near or on the plot, especially if the loss is fresh or the visitor is young or an outsider to conventions. The standard stance seems to be simple: hands clasped, feet almost together, breathing measured. It is a pause in the movement of the living.
This part is an important part of what one ought to do on Memorial Day: pause.
Whether you go to a cemetery to do so, or pause while washing dishes, it is a day that commands a pause, despite where you stand on any politically divisive issue including war.
Memorial Day was created so that we might pause and remember those who had fought and died for a cause, and that cause was protecting those of us who are still here.
We need not agree with the war in which they fought. We do need to acknowledge that their decision to serve in the United States military caused their life to end, often prematurely, and their loved ones to carry a sorrow that only time and tears and the mercy of God might make more bearable.
And this: because those
left behind carry this burden, and those they go to honor stepped up to serve, we who watch from a distant picnic did not have to. I find that to be the most humbling part of all. To think that my today is brighter because another person’s is more dim — to think that my today exists, because another’s today does not, is a humbling thing to consider.
A pause is the least I can offer as a means of acknowledging that my life is tied to their sorrow, whether I know them or not.