How we remember
By: magnolia_admin | August 16, 2017
To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die. ~ Thomas Campbell
Cemeteries here in the Southern US are sprawling expanses of standing stones.
Many proud and old, weather-beaten and scarred, standing guard above a grave no one has visited in a century. Others are bright and new, smaller and more sharply cut. Sometimes they are decorated with flowers or ornamentation, sometimes they are flat stones with no words beyond a name. And here we think that is what reverence of the dead is: a silent place with expensive rocks to guard their sleep.
Everyone memorializes differently. I have friends who consider it an affront to the dead if a grave doesn’t receive flowers at least twice a year. I have others who never visit graves but commemorate their loved ones with a toast at a special holiday.
Neither is right.
Neither is wrong.
Every place and person treats remains differently. They are sometimes cremated in private, sometimes buried under earth, sometimes placed on the bare ground and covered in stone, sometimes burned on a public pyre.
Over the ocean near Hawaii there floats a memorial to 1,177 men who died when the USS Arizona was sunk in the attack on Pearl Harbor. It is a stark, solemn place meant to memorialize the dead whose bodies could never be recovered to honor. Oil still bleeds from the ship. Tourists, survivors, soldiers – people from all over the world come to pay their respects to the men buried in the ocean. It is a memorial like no other.
The dead are respected. The living are comforted.
On the outskirts of Oświęcim, Poland, stands Auschwitz-Berkenau. It is a museum, a research facility, and a memorial to the more than 1.1 million lives lost inside it during the Holocaust. Divided into two camps, the area was home to unspeakable atrocities and devastating loss. It is a disturbing and heart-wrenching place that is meant to be visited with trepidation and horror. It is stark. It is mourning. It is agonizing and angry. It is sacred. It is a place to mourn the dead, and a place to terrify the living of the evil we all allow, in our complacency and fear, to take over the world.
The dead are honored. The living are shamed and sanctified.
There is a garden in Hiroshima, Japan. It used to be a place of commerce, of business, of everyday life. It was the site of the first atomic bomb ever released in war. There was no room for the bomb in the middle of life, so it ripped open a space for itself, taking 140,000 men, women, and children with it. The victims are memorialized here, in a beautiful garden. Every year, a ceremony is held. Participants light lanterns and release them with notes of peace onto the Motoyasu River.
The dead are not forgotten. The living are not absolved.
I often visit the battlefield at Shiloh, both as a history buff and a biker. It is calm. It is quiet. It is serene. If you didn’t know and didn’t happen to read any of the signage, you’d never know that 23,000 men died there. Placid fields are the grazing grounds of deer. It holds only the feelings you bring. The dead are silent. The boom of artillery is resurrected only at reenactments.
The ghosts are friendly.
In the face of tragedy, humanity remembers the dead however they can.
We pile stones.
We light fires.
We sing songs.
We smooth over ground so that the graves go unnoticed.
We raise up monuments so that the graves will never be forgotten.
We build statues to remind us of what was lost.
We destroy statues when they remind a new generation of things they wish to forget.
We establish museums, we reconstruct death camps, we tear down forests for graves, we plant trees, we bring flowers, we build temples and shrines, we buy slabs of marble to mark our dead, we give our savings to causes the dead supported, we whisper, we cry out, we crush bones and dilute them in ink that we bury under our skin, we scatter ashes into the wind.
Some of us keep our dead close. Some of us send them into the waters of a river to be carried to the sea.
No way is better than the other.
Build your towers. Dig your graves. Write your stories. Do things for the future that honor the past.
What matters is not what form your memory takes. What matters is that you remember.
So at all memorials this holds true:
The dead are remembered. The living are not forsaken.
August 16, 2017