When my husband and I set off on a cross-country trip four years ago, we knew we would visit numerous historical sites. We did not think so many of them would include graveyards.
On our first stopover in Santa Fe, New Mexico, we came across a national cemetery. Intrigued by the patterns of the tombstones set among the snow, Ron pulled over to take pictures. I spent my time wandering up and down the pristine pathways, taking in the names of the veterans and the different wars that claimed their lives.
As our travels took us farther east, we came across numerous resting places for those who fell during the Civil War. The origins of Memorial Day stretch back to that terrible time when our ancestors turned their weapons on one another in a ferocious firestorm of bloodshed and suffering.
Drew Gilpin Faust’s fascinating book, This Republic of Suffering, details the changes in attitudes and practices towards death that took place in the United States during and after the Civil War. The sheer numbers of those killed in a single battle required burying the bodies where they fell rather than sending them home to rest in churchyards and family plots – the norm up until that time. This gave way to the creation of national cemeteries and the accompanying memorials to pay tribute to those who died while serving their country.
During our trip, I was struck most forcefully by the way these sites were transformed from battlegrounds to parks. They seemed to represent the peace that comes only with time. Long-ago enemies lay side-by-side as the years blurred and eventually obliterated the animosities that led to such horrific violence.
Memorial Day is an opportunity to honor the great sacrifices of those who died in battle. It can also be a call to restore hope in the midst of our most dire circumstances.
Isaiah, the great prophet who envisioned a time when swords and spears would be turned into plowshares and pruning hooks (Isaiah 2:4), recognized the transitory nature of life and the enduring presence of God. “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades… but the word of our God will stand forever” (Isaiah 40:6-8).
As we remember our fallen soldiers, may we also cling to the dream of a day when it will no longer be necessary to build memorials to those killed in battle as peace flowers among all humankind.
Read Isaiah 2:2-4 with your family, class, or as a quiet meditation. Reflect upon or discuss a world where no nation rises up against another. What will it take to be a world at peace?
Honor living veterans by researching assistance programs in your area. What can you do to provide support and care to veterans who are suffering the short and long-term effects of warfare?