Some Saints say that death ain’t no thang.
One day after the first shots of the Civil War were fired at Ft. Sumter, on April 13, 1861, Private Daniel Hough stood near a cannon that fired for the surrender ceremony. It burst onto him. He died. Four years later, the war ended in the stillness at Appomattox. 600,000 men had died. In one battle alone, Shiloh, more men died than in all America’s previous wars.
Three years after the end of the war, the veteran’s organization, the Grand Army of the Republic, issued General Order No. 11:
The 30th day of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet church-yard in the land. In this observance no form of ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.
Memorial Day has since expanded to touch on veterans and all our dead, but war dead and those who loved them are still at the core of the observance.
Abraham Lincoln said that Americans were an almost-chosen people. Others have said that America is an almost religion. Memorial Day is one of the two religious holidays of the American nation, that link us to the transcendent. At Thanksgiving, we acknowledge the blessing hand of God. At Memorial Day, the nation considers sacrifice and death, both in their nature not of this world, death, especially, being the naked singularity where temporal law no longer holds. If Voegeli is right that every society requires a connection with the transcendent, then Memorial Day may be a necessary holiday. And if Bottum is correct that every state must be a mortuary state, then Memorial Day may be the necessary holiday.
Every society rests on a foundation of unequal sacrifice. (These necessary injustices are echoes of the infinite injustice that is the bond and cement of the society of Heaven.) In war, societies must convince young men to die to the benefit of others. In our society, Memorial Day and all it represents is part of that persuasion.
Memorial Day also expresses our guilt. What we cannot give the dead in the peace and safety that we enjoy, we try to make up to them in honor. Thanksgiving acknowledges our blessings that came at the hand of the Almighty. Memorial Day acknowledges our blessings that we receive at other hands.
And last of all, perhaps, Memorial Day is the pity and horror we feel for the bewildered dead.
“And then, suddenly–and what was it all about?
Why should anyone want to kill me? Why was it done?”
So the grey lips. And so the hurt in the eyes.
A hurt like a child’s, at punishment unexplained
That makes the whole child-universe fall to pieces.
At the time of death, most men turn back toward the child.
It is right and proper to remember the dead.
But what of Mormons who claim that death is just the entrance fee to a rollickin’ good time? We all believe that something better awaits. Should we envy the soldierly dead rather than honor them? Can Mormonism and Memorial Day mix?
We have our own Memorial Day, so yes. Pioneer Day is what I mean, which is not nearly as much our 4th of July as many have supposed.
Death is only ‘just’ a gateway because it was overcome. Christ’s victory was over a real enemy. We only follow him into the resurrection if we first follow him into the tomb. He cannot rescue us from death until we are in death’s power. It would deny him if we only mourned death without any hope. It would also deny him if we thought death was nothing.
But all that needs to be said has been said before:
Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us–that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion–that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.