Whether a person dies in combat or survives for years after their retirement from service, serving in the military leaves a mark on a soldier, airman, or sailor. It is likely one of the few careers that leaves one with a distinguished title – veteran. Too often on Memorial Day, the true purpose of the day – honoring the ones who died in combat – is lost, even among the parades and red, white and blue decorations. Barbeques and discount sales sometimes take precedence over remembering the sacrifices of those who served our country.
In his first inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln spoke of the “mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land.” He said this even prior to the bloodiest war in American history, when countrymen turned against each other; when family members fought on opposite sides of the battle lines.
At the end of four long, bloodstained years, upward of 650,000 men were laid to rest in such graves. Honoring their sacrifice brought about the advent of Memorial Day. Decorating the tombs of those who died in war became a tradition in both the north and south even before the war ended. “Decoration Day” eventually morphed into Memorial Day and was declared a federal holiday in 1971, set on the last Monday of May each year.
In nearly every cemetery in the United States rests the remains of military veterans, those who paid the ultimate price for freedom and those who gave years of service to their country. Today, Memorial Day is set aside to honor soldiers of every American conflict, from the American Revolution to more recent wars in the Middle East.
As Catholics, we have always paid tribute to the men and women who have passed from this life to the next, hopefully in the grace of God. The deceased remain with us beyond the passage of their lives. Saints are given places of respect in our hearts and within the Church, with elaborate churches and mausoleums often built over their gravesites. Praying for the dead (as well as the living) is one of the spiritual works of mercy.
Memorial Day brings Catholicism and patriotism together. Although patriotism is not a traditionally Christian virtue, we recognize that God has given humans governance over ourselves and our homelands. There is a natural order to things, including governmental authorities, and even Jesus recognized that. Historically, rulers throughout the centuries considered themselves God’s appointed leaders on earth.
Though not a strictly Catholic country as its European ancestors once were, the U.S. still owes its founding to Judeo-Christian beliefs which permeated our early roots and written into our primary documents such as the Declaration of Independence. The longest-surviving signer of that revered document was in fact Catholic, the Irish-descended Charles Carroll of Maryland, a strong backer of the American Revolution, both in writing and financially.
Like Catholicism, military life emphasizes a certain level of pomp and ceremony. For those who are both Catholics and veterans, that resonates perhaps more deeply than it does for others. A military parade is not a sacred ritual, yet there is something almost spiritual about it. Honors given to deceased servicemembers in the context of a military funeral or the honor guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington Cemetery reflect this. Like a Catholic Mass, each gesture, each movement has meaning.
Military honors can be incorporated in the funeral Mass, including the flag-draped coffin and the traditional salute and flag-folding ceremony at the close.
Numbers have special significance, both in secular culture and in the Church, in both cases, particularly three and seven. Even the number 13 – 13 men at the Last Supper; 13 original colonies, symbolized on the stripes on the American flag and the folds of the one presented to a veteran’s next of kin. According to Military.com, beyond representing the 13 original colonies, these folds have more significant meanings, most of which align with Catholic values. The first two alone represent life on earth and life everlasting; folds four, 11, and 12 speak of abiding faith in God. As the saying goes, there are no atheists in foxholes.
Other folds illustrate the traditional roles of women and men whose influence builds the character of their children and who give them up for defense of the nation (folds nine and 10). Three, five, six, and seven all honor the veteran, the armed forces and the nation to whom the veteran’s heart belongs. The eighth is practically a prayer, a means of recognizing the soldier who has entered the valley of the shadow of death and the hope that he or she will rise to eternal life.
The 13th fold, with the field of stars at the top, signifies the nation’s motto: “In God We Trust.” The triangle shape of the folded flag symbolizes the tricorn hat worn by Revolutionary War soldiers, the earliest patriots who died in the cause of freedom. For Catholics, we also see the triune God in its shape.
At the end of a military funeral, the bugle call known as Taps is played. Though there are only 24 notes in Taps, the slow, haunting melody is easily recognizable even to those who have never served in the military. The solemn tune plays over the caskets of American veterans everywhere. Taps dates back to the Civil War when union general Dan Butterfield arranged a bugle call for “lights out”, a military tradition that to this day continues to close the day on many military bases. Taps began to be used in funerals in 1862, a practice that both sides quickly adopted, and which has lasted more than 150 years thereafter. At the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Taps is played over the graves during the wreath laying ceremony every Memorial Day. The organization Bugles Across America provides funeral services to veterans’ families at their request, free of charge.
Even the traditional 21-gun salute harkens back to Christianity. The U.S. Army website explains that it originally began as a one-cannon salute, then evolved to using seven cannons on warships – the number likely chosen for its significance in Christian tradition: God created the world in seven days, every seventh year a sabbatical in Hebrew tradition, etc. As land cannons could access a greater supply of ammunition, that salute became three volleys of seven (three again being a significant Christian number), a custom that spread from nations like Great Britain to other militaries, with the U.S. officially adopting the 21-gun salute in 1875. Symbolically, the number 21 is the highest honor rendered to a fallen soldier.
In Arlington National Cemetery, the protocols surrounding those buried there impact thousands of visitors each year. At the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, there are special ceremonies conveying sorrow and gratitude to those who visit it. These tombs are guarded day in and day out, in extreme heat and extreme cold – even in the midst of hurricanes and blizzards. Members of “The Old Guard” – soldiers from the 3rd U.S. Army Infantry Regiment, the oldest active-duty infantry regiment, stationed at nearby Fort Myer – keep vigil over these unknown soldiers from World Wars One, Two and Korea. The last crypt, which once held an unknown soldier from the Vietnam War – identified in 1998 as Air Force 1st Lieutenant Michael Joseph Blassie – is vacant, now a tribute to the many who remain missing from the years 1958-1975.
These Sentinels, who have undergone a long and rigorous training process, march exactly 21 steps before the tombs, stop for 21 seconds, turn and march 21 steps back, again stopping for 21 seconds in the turn. A Sentinel’s weapon will always rest on the shoulder closest to visitors, demonstrating that he or she will not hesitate to protect the tombs from any threats. At the changing of the guard, a complex set of maneuvers takes place, and crowds are asked to stand in silence during the moving tribute.
Most cemeteries see some of the highest influx of visitors on Memorial Day, regardless of whether a loved one served in the military or not. Many see it as a day to honor their beloved dead, and so cemetery maintenance personnel generally try to put the grounds in pristine condition for visitors.
There is a famous World War I poem called “In Flanders Field.” This sorrowful work resonates for soldiers of any war, speaking of the flowers that grow between the graves of fallen soldiers in Flanders, Belgium, and for survivors to “take up our quarrel with the foe.” Today, red poppies are often worn or used to decorate the graves of those who died in battle.
Perhaps to commemorate this Memorial Day, we as Catholics can take some time away from our cookouts to stop at a cemetery and pray for those who have gone before us, be they relative or stranger, soldier or civilian. How many graves sit alone and forgotten, with no one left to remember or pray for the person resting therein? How many could benefit from our prayers, “that we might see the light of day,” as the seventh fold states?