In Memory

REMEMBER me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go, yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
You tell me of our future that you planned:
Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.

–Christina Rossetti

I for one would rather forget that my father died suddenly at age 60 and remember that try as he might, he could not stifle the explosive guffaws when watching the movie Airplane. I would rather forget that my mother’s last hours were spent suffering in a hospital and remember that she would sometimes pick me up from school and stop by the video store so we could indulge ourselves in a classic movie before Dad got home from work.

It’s easier – and more comforting – to remember the fun, the loving and touching moments, the happiness our loved ones brought to us in life. Yet we memorialize their deaths. We go to gravesites, we build makeshift altars at sites of their deaths, and on a larger scale, we build memorials – often of granite and marble – to mark the moments of death.

Are we obsessed with death?  I don’t think so… I think exactly the opposite is true. We remember when and how people died because we are obsessed with life.

We mourn the loss of life. When it’s a closed loved one, it cuts us in intimate ways – the death of my partner in 1998 was like losing a limb. When it’s a little more distant, like the recent deaths in Moore, Oklahoma or the constant barrage of mass shootings in New Orleans, Newtown, Aurora, Tuscon, Columbine – it cuts into our understanding of thriving in global community and leaves an existential feeling of loss. When it’s a soldier – especially one who lost their life in combat – it’s more complex. We hate war and how it rips apart our planet; yet we respect deeply those who have chosen to serve.

It’s all so difficult – these memories tied to life and death. We grapple internally with loss, with pain, with the deep well of sorrow that drowns us in cold unsettling grief; yet while much of our personal mourning is private, we publicly memorialize. Why do we take time to memorialize? Why do we ritualize it? We do, after all – we have services and parades and graveside markings and songs. We’ve been doing this for millennia – we see evidence of it in the psalms written during the Babylonian exile in the 5th century BCE: “by the rivers of Babylon, where we sat down, and there we wept when we remembered Zion.” There are ancient markers where battles where fought, and stories passed down about Badon Pass and Hannibal and the 300. Today, we see evidence everywhere; even in my little hometown of Taborton, the veteran’s group puts fresh American flags on all the graves of veterans in the little cemetery on the hill overlooking Little Bowman Pond, complete with a brief ceremony at each stone. Round Lake holds a ceremony at our little war memorial – if you come to the service next week, you can see our memorial across from the municipal building. And even today – in a few minutes – we will also memorialize through the ritual of lighting candles for those we have lost. We will speak their names…remember their faces…make sure that others know who they were. Memorializing formally, as ritualist Brigitte Sion says, creates a space where we can claim our right to grief and mourning; we can’t just ‘get over it’ – we need to make space for our memory. And when that space isn’t provided, we find ways to make it.

One of the most powerful memorials I have ever experienced is the AIDS quilt. Unlike a large, permanent memorial, like the Wall or the Holocaust Museum or the striking Korean war memorial, that is planned and sanctioned and funded – it is organic, and surprising, and moveable. Adding to the quilt is a given, for it is also ever-changing. It begins with friends, sitting together, sewing and painting and gluing – and talking. Sharing memories, tears, and Kleenex. And then it’s added to a larger quilt, where more memories are shared as it’s attached to quilt pieces from others; there, our memories become attached to other memories. And then, it is displayed…and others have a chance to remember, to see these lives. And when it is displayed, the names are read. We hear those names – those lost to this horrible disease, those who initially were marginalized even as illness decimated an already marginalized community. I’m sorry to say I have worked on more than one quilt piece – but I am glad that I can remember, and that others can share those memories.

In memorial, the act of remembering is a physical act, that connects us with the past, that connects us with life, that alters time so that past and present can meet, even for a short while. And we find strength in the remembering. Director Anne Bogart says “As a result of a partnership with memory and the consequent journeys through the past, I feel nourished, encouraged, and energized. I feel more profoundly connected to and inspired by those who came before.”

Connected and inspired.

This, especially, when remembering those who served their country in the military, is key. It’s hard now – we have such a difficult relationship to war; misguided policies led us into controversial conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf, Panama, Grenada, Iraq, Afghanistan. Remembering those wars requires us to grapple with larger, difficult issues. And I would say we had an easier relationship to war prior to Korea – certainly some of the reasons we fought in the World Wars are more cut and dry. But even those wars – and the Spanish American War, the Mexican Wars, and the Civil War, where the seeds Memorial Day began, are much more complex than simply fights between good and evil.

Yet we cannot help but remember with some admiration the people who have chosen to put themselves in harm’s way – not for personal interest – but for their community and their nation. The first Memorial Day celebrations – and many places claim “first”, including black children in Charleston who honored the US Colored troops who died in the Civil War  – those first celebrations were about remembering sacrifice and honoring the lives of those people who died. And it was such a right and remarkable act, that we institutionalized it and continue to remember and honor those who have served – not just in uniform but in the many ways we understand service to our nation and our world community.

We acknowledge their service, we recall the circumstances of their deaths, and we dwell in the quiet sorrow of our loss … but mostly, we remember their lives. We connect with the living – and we journey with them, even if only for a moment. We recognize the souls that walked among us, while they lived. We hear their names, and we see their spirits in those who bring them to our table today – they live in us. As Kathleen McTigue writes – and we will read together responsively (No. 721, Singing the Living Tradition) – they are with us still.

As we complete our reading, I invite you to come forward to the table as you are so moved, to light a candle and speak the names of those you wish for all of us to remember today.

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Learn more about my ministry at The Art of Meaning

Read my thoughts about congregational life at Hold My Chalice