Decorating the Dead

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My grandmother and her friends used to call Memorial Day by its old name, Decoration Day. People went out to the cemeteries to “decorate” the graves. As a young man, I thought, “What hypocrisy! Millions of people are slaughtered in wars, and they are ‘remembered’ by people who ‘decorate’ their graves!”

The thought still seems unavoidable, especially when you see the Memorial Day ceremonies at a military cemetery. Here are thousands of identical white tombstones, “memorializing” individual men and women who are, for the most part, remembered by no one. And these are only a tiny fraction of the hundreds of millions of people slaughtered by wars and revolutions during the past two centuries — shot, drowned, blown apart, starved to death.

Nor is mass slaughter merely a feature of the modern world. The Iroquois wiped out the civilization of the Hurons, and tried to wipe out the Hurons themselves. They almost succeeded. Where are the tribes of the ancient European world? In many cases, only their names remain to be “memorialized,” by the rare scholar who knows their names.

Yet I believe that the idea of “decoration” or “remembrance” can be more than hypocrisy, if we — like, perhaps, my grandmother and her friends — actually use it as a way of asserting the significance of individual human lives. Though lost to specific memory, the lives of those people whose graves we see beyond the cemetery fence were real and important. If in decorating a tomb we actually do remember that, and at the same time remember the horrors that inevitably occur when the significance of the individual is forgotten, we may do well.

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