This weekend we celebrate Memorial Day, that national holiday on which we remember and honor all our loved ones who are no longer with us. To many it is "Decoration Day" when pilgrimages are made to cemeteries to place flowers on the graves of the departed. There is a sense in which the graves should be forgotten. A person who lives only in the past may grow melancholy and morbid. No one should bury the zest for living and the hopes for the future in some sentimental grave.
On the other hand, there are good reasons for spending much thought with the graves. We ought to have a past tense. Memories should be precious. The heritage that our forebears gave us should be carried with thankfulness. Then, too, we ought not to shy away from the sobering fact that we too will one day rest in a grave. Life is like a bird on the wing that has but a little way to flutter. Many of the anxieties and ambitions we coddle would assume their proper place and seem trivial if we kept before us the nearness of the grave. Moreover, the bodies that rest in graves remind us that death is not the end, and that He who has raised up Jesus will raise us up also.
While Memorial Day has become the occasion for remembering all the dead, the day originally was set aside to remember the heroic dead of war. Since all war seems so futile, it's easy to become cynical and conclude that these people died in vain. The fact that we live as we do, with the freedom of representative government, makes of their deaths more than stark tragedy.
It is important that we remember that they did not die in order that we might live. Just to live is not enough. Their lives were too great a price to pay just so that we might eat and make love and grow fat. There is no logic in asking a young man or woman to give up their life in order that an old person may grow rich. They died that we might be free-free to live lives of honor and justice and mercy.
In all candor, and with utter shame, we must confess that for millions of Americans freedom means simply the opportunity to do whatever one pleases. That sort of freedom is not worth one life in Iwo Jima or Bataan or Korea or Vietnam or Afghanistan or Iraq. If freedom means the right of a politician to reap untold, unrestricted power or a businessman to make excessive profits or a professional person to exact unjust fees, then our freedom is just a new type of tyranny. Our heroic dead died in order that we might live and freely do what we ought to do.
"Woe to you ... you hypocrites ... you have neglected the most important matters of the law-justice, mercy, and forgiveness. These you should have practiced (Matthew 23:23-25). "