Tuesday, June 01, 2010

The Meaning of Memorial Day

We visited my Father-in-Law’s grave on Saturday afternoon. The weather was relatively pleasant. The cemetery was filled with colorful flowers. There were a number of people standing in groups around graves. Some seemed to be thoughtful. A few appeared to be enjoying one anothers’ company.

Yesterday we visited my Father’s grave along with a number of family members. The weather was very nice. We placed flowers and chatted. Some stood, while others sat on the lawn. Many other families were doing the same.

Dad’s grave is less than a mile from my home. I frequently stop by. But other family members that don’t live as close get fewer opportunities to visit. My Dad-in-Law’s grave is across the county, so we don’t visit as often.

I quite enjoyed remembering and memorializing my Dad and my Dad-in-Law. Both were magnificent human beings.

Large swaths of the cemetery where my Father-in-Law is buried have flat, ground level grave markers that can easily be mowed over. This gives the appearance of relatively unobstructed rolling green lawns. The feeling seems pleasant to me.

My Dad is buried in a municipal cemetery that was founded by early settlers. The place is filled with a broad variety of monuments and markers of various, shapes, sizes, and colors. The job of the caretaking staff is much more involved at this cemetery, given that there are few markers that can simply be mowed over. Each marker requires custom trimming. But the place looked fantastic. The staff had done good work.

I have many fond memories of this municipal cemetery. I used to walk through it on the way to and from school. When my kids were younger, I walked them up and down the cemetery’s roads in a stroller. They loved it. I enjoyed the sparse traffic and the rarity of dogs. I know where the most unique monuments are, and I was at least somewhat acquainted with quite a number of grave occupants.

There are several competing versions of the details surrounding the founding of Memorial Day. But most sources seem to agree that it was instituted to memorialize soldiers killed during the Civil War.

Over the past couple of months, I have been very slowly watching Ken Burns’ documentary on the Civil War. And I do mean slowly. Last night I took a rare opportunity to watch an entire episode that covers roughly 1863; the year that the war turned in the Union’s favor after it seemed like the Union could do little right for over two years.

Burns does a good job of mixing moments of valiancy and triumph with the incredible horrors of deprivation, depravation, violence and carnage that were part of that war. As the episode concluded with a reading of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, I was left in a somber mood.

The extreme destruction of life and property seemed so senseless on one hand. But the obliteration of the American institution of human slavery carries an incalculable value, even if one assumes that slavery would have dissipated organically. From my comfortable seat in the 21st Century, it certainly seems as if all of this could have been avoided had any one of a handful of individuals chosen differently.

Given the ongoing controversy about the war — a series of disagreements that will far exceed the lifetime of my future great-grandchildren — I realized that I wasn’t going to resolve the matter in my mind at the moment. But I did comprehend that, regardless of viewpoint, the Civil War was a significant historical event that helped define what it means to be an American. It helped characterize what the United States of America is and what it means.

Thankfully, each of us still has the freedom to arrive at that understanding on our own, though our results may differ.

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