I don’t like giving up dessert to improve my health. I don’t like giving up a baseball game for work. I resist giving hard-earned cash even for causes I deeply support. Heck, I don’t even like giving up a good parking space for someone who needs it worse than I do.
But to inspire positive change, sacrifice is inevitable.
On this Memorial Day, I recall presiding over numerous military funerals at Biloxi National Cemetery on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. It is difficult to have fond memories surrounding death, but there is something special about a military funeral: the peaceful grounds, the perfect order of the markers, and the folding and presentation of the flag to a grieving family that pierces the hardest heart.
As officiant, my back was always turned to the twenty-one gun salute, and I never was prepared for the explosion of gunfire from the seven rifles that shattered the still, humid air. I shuddered on each of the subsequent rounds even though I knew they were coming.
The most poignant moment was the playing of Taps. Even when the family had held it together, the initial notes of that haunting melody, low, low, high . . . burst the tear duct dam every time. I never noticed if the bugler was a pimply-teenage boy or middle-age mother—the identity did not matter. The command was in the music, and the last dying note hung in the air with such rich honor that no one dared to breathe.
Surely the cruel specter of death was not honored. Surely the hell of war was not honored. I am sure it was the tragic beauty of sacrifice that was worthy of such solemn respect and dignity.
The very name, Memorial Day, instruct us of its aim—to remember—but I prefer the negative framing—that individual souls not be forgotten.
This nation, in fact every nation has a vested interest in asking its citizenry to remember such sacrifice for a nation needs human resources to carry out its survival goal. And in our deeply divided political climate we can argue national policy that leads to war, and we do, and we should. But today, I wish we could lay that aside for a few moments and stop shopping for a new car and grilling hot dogs long enough to remember and honor sacrifice.
On another day it might be for the firefighter who rushed upstairs while the World Trade Center collapsed. On another day it might be the police officer who kisses her husband goodbye every morning knowing that her chosen profession does not guarantee an evening safe at home. On another day it might be the activist who stands up against abusive power knowing that such a stand may very well leave him a victim of that very power.
But today, it is the soldier on the battlefield willing to die for a greater cause than self.
The aptly-named ultimate sacrifice should not be forgotten, for it is that very willingness to give up all for the good of another that is the heart of our collective desire for a better world.
For the 148th consecutive year at Gettysburg, and at locations all across the nation, the bugler takes her position . . .
Possibly of interest:
- The original lyrics of Taps, by Horace Lorenzo Trim:
Day is done, gone the sun
From the lakes, from the hills, from the sky
All is well, safely rest
God is nigh.
Fading light dims the sight
And a star gems the sky, gleaming bright
From afar, drawing near
Falls the night.
Thanks and praise for our days
Neath the sun, neath the stars, neath the sky
As we go, this we know
God is nigh.
- Decoration Day by Charles Ives (performed by the San Francisco Symphony under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas). Decoration Day was the original name of Memorial Day.
Al, what insightful thoughts on this Memorial Day. Your essay helped me focus on the honor we appreciate. Thank you.
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