This Memorial Day I’ll make what’s become an annual pilgrimage, to a place made sacred by the struggles of people like my cousin Mike. Nestled in between the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Fort Snelling National Cemetery is the final resting place for more than 220,000 American military veterans and their spouses. Most of them died at a ripe old age, but a few of the headstones bear birth and death dates that are far closer than they ought to be. One of those belongs to Mike, a Navy corpsman traumatized by his experience of the Iraq War. He died in 2014 at the age of 33, leaving behind a wife and three young children.
Some of the visitors who had preceded me last year to Mike’s graveside left behind tokens of remembrance. Flowers and a small American flag rested peacefully in the grass. Two of his comrades-in-arms had placed quarters on the headstone.
Nothing remained of my visit but fallen tears, fleeting evidence of the complicated mix of emotions I felt: grief at Mike’s suffering and death, pride for his courage and sacrifice, dismay at humanity’s propensity for violence, anger at the circumstances that led to his death, and uncertainty about how I should participate in the rituals of Memorial Day.
More of the hurt will have healed when I visit this year, but the other emotions have already started to bubble up. So as a Christian, as a historian, and as someone who loved and was loved by a fallen veteran, let me share what I’ve been contemplating as we approach Memorial Day.
We need reminders to remember.
In a sense, every day is a memorial day for Christians, heirs of Moses’ exhortation to the assembly of Israel: “Remember the days of old; consider the generations long past” (Deut. 32:7). For if we are called to be good stewards of that which God has made (Gen. 1:28), then we must recognize that time is as much a dimension of Creation as space. We must do our best to preserve and make meaning of the past, knowing that every passing moment erodes what’s left of what went before. Indeed, those who follow the risen Christ might even understand remembering to be a way of loving our (temporal) neighbors and proclaiming that the grave has won no lasting victory.
But while God “has put a sense of past and future” into our minds (Ecc. 3:11 NRSV), remembrance has never come easily for the creatures made in his image. Like the Israelites coming out of slavery in Egypt, we must heed the Bible’s instruction to “be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them fade from your heart as long as you live” (Deut. 4:9). The risk of forgetfulness is all the greater for Americans in the 21st century, living as we do in a society that tempts us in a million ways to privilege the present and rush headlong into the future.
So we remind ourselves to remember. In the church, writes philosopher Jamie Smith, “the rhythms of Christian worship and the liturgical year stretch us backward” (Desiring the Kingdom, p. 158). Even the least liturgical evangelical regularly breaks bread and drinks from a cup “in remembrance of” Jesus (1 Cor. 11:23–25).
Likewise, secular time is structured so as to jog our memory. That calendar, like its liturgical cousin, is dotted with speed bumps that slow our frenzied pace, if only for a day, and force us to glance back at the past. So rather than treat the last Monday in May as nothing more than the extension of a spring weekend, Christians should first embrace it as a reminder of our commemorative calling and treat it with respect and honor.