Today we observe Memorial Day and I use the word “observe” with intention. We might easily say that we’re “celebrating” Memorial Day and, indeed, that may seem more appropriate. This is the start of summer, the first lifting of the dusty, gritty grill lid, the washing of the deck chairs, the crack of bat on ball, the first dipping of toes in chill mountain streams, the move outside for the duration of the season. After a Vermont winter, it’s certainly something to be celebrated.
Memorial Day, however, is imbued with tension and ambiguity because, while apple trees, lilac and tulips abound in blossom and fragrance, while everything is filled with promise, we’re called to remember those who’ve died in combat. When first established after the Civil War, it was fittingly named Decoration Day and was a time when these very flowers were placed on the graves of those who’d died in battle. It’s not to be confused with Veterans Day which is about honoring all veterans who have served in the US military.
In the 8th century in France a short responsive antiphon - or sung prayer - was written that’s endured through the ages. It’s first line is Media vita in morte sumus, in the midst of life we are in death. It seems a fitting reminder for this day when, in the spring flush of creation, we’re called to stop and remember those who’ve died in war.
It’s easy to imagine that after the Civil War, with musket smoke dissipating from the hills of home, that people, laden with grief would need to stop their desperate efforts to restore their lives and simply honor the lost. It was a day to let the solemn sadness simply be. They could have, and no doubt did, sit on porches and swings and share memories and tears, but they chose also to adorn the graves of their loved ones with creation’s proclamation of abundance.
So today I’ll take a moment and envision the quiet walk of a diminished family up a grassy hill of a cemetery to a cold stone. The birds will be singing, flowers placed gently on the grave, the ambiguity of spring’s renewal so stark against a seeming end. For centuries graves have been decorated with flowers, it’s more than a gesture; it’s an affirmation that beauty and hope still live.