“I am oppressed with a sense of the impropriety of uttering words on this occasion. If silence is ever golden, it must be here beside the graves of 15,000 men, whose lives were more significant than speech, and whose death was a poem, the music of which can never be sung. With words we make promises, plight faith, praise virtue. Promises may not be kept; plighted faith may be broken; and vaunted virtue be only the cunning mask of vice. We do not know one promise these men made, one pledge they gave, one word they spoke; but we do know they summed up and perfected, by one supreme act, the highest virtues of men and citizens. For love of country they accepted death, and thus resolved all doubts, and made immortal their patriotism and their virtue. For the noblest man that lives, there still remains a conflict. He must still withstand the assaults of time and fortune, must still be assailed with temptations, before which lofty natures have fallen; but with these the conflict ended, the victory was won, when death stamped on them the great seal of heroic character, and closed a record which years can never blot.”
— James Garfield (1831 — 81) First Decoration Day Speech at Arlington National Cemetery, May 30, 1868.
It is impossible to be paying attention while visiting a cemetery (other than for a funeral) and not, at some point, fall silent. Even more so at a cemetery at or near a battlefield. Eventually conversation gives way to reflection. Curiosity gives way to a sense of one’s own mortality. Movement gives way to reflection. Pain gives way to gratitude.
There are days when it is imperative that we put, for a moment, our judgment and cynicism aside. I can think of a few times in my life when I found myself standing side by side with someone I either did not know or did not like very much. But there we were working together, suffering together, or celebrating together. The events that brought each of us to that time and place were forgotten.
There are many things that matter in life (and in death), but on Memorial Day what matters is that we are remembering that a person who woke up one day young, vibrant, and alive finished that day by having that life taken in service to others. The circumstances are, for this day, immaterial. The willingness of their attitude irrelevant. What matters is that a nation called on them, conscripted or volunteer, and there they were at that time and that place.
There is nothing that can be said or done to fully heal. What is left for us is to remember, with gratefulness, the sacrifice made by all those who died in service to all of us. And it is in the remembering that we tell our story. It is tragic indeed that the story of our nation (and most others) can be told by rehearsing conflicts that cost the lives of millions of people. We also know that we owe to them our continuing efforts to preserve what so many have died for. We owe more than words of condolence to families. We owe them more than a day of remembering.
We owe them love and care for each other. We owe to them vigorous debate and devotion to freedom and opportunity. We owe them setting aside our cynicism and being led by headlines and news producers. We owe them the effort to educate ourselves concerning civics, faith, law, and economics. We owe to them treating each other as fellow citizens of one of the freest nations the world has known. We owe them our best efforts. Go — stand in a veteran’s or battlefield cemetery and then tell me differently.
What Jesus said of himself concerning the opportunity he gives us is true of anyone, “Greater love has no one than this, that a person lay down their life for their friends.” (see John 15:13). This is love in action. It is gritty love that endures violence for the good of others. It is love that knows there is more to this world than one’s next breath.
We have songs. We have poetry. We have paintings, statues, and sculptures. We have all seen war movies or seen a play. We have read books and blogs. But there is nothing that hits the same as those moments of silent reflection in the midst of those who died violently to give us a chance, a chance, to live in peace. Ultimately, there are no words.