The upbeat greeting of “Happy Memorial Day,” said with the same enthusiasm of Independence Day, has always seemed off to me. This somber national holiday honors the dead rather than focusing on a particular victory. Also known as Decoration Day, the holiday began in the wake of the Civil War. At that time, flowers began to decorate the graves of fallen soldiers from both sides of the war during the peak spring bloom—late April in the south and late May in the north. Placing a flower on a grave brings one face-to-face with death, sacrifice, and life after death. How does one have a Happy Memorial Day? It’s akin to asking how one has a happy funeral.
The question of how best to commemorate the dead is a question of religion. Without faith, Memorial Day consists solely in cookouts, trips, and parades that celebrate the freedom our nation enjoys. Sure, these activities celebrate the fruits of our servicemen and women’s sacrifice, but it also turns Memorial Day into merely the start of summer, the day of dispensation to dawn white linen pants.
The miniature flags at Arlington Cemetery, a vestige of Decoration Day, speak more of the nation than of the individuals. While these flags do give honor to the fallen soldiers by acknowledging the nation for which they died, the unified image points more to the present nation-state rather than the individual souls. What do we as a nation do for the individual souls?
Our Catholic faith, particularly the Mass, helps us to celebrate Memorial Day as true patriots. For one, we pray for the dead. St. Monica enjoined her son St. Augustine not to be concerned about her death in a foreign land. “Put this body away anywhere. Don’t let care about it disturb you. I ask only this of you, that you remember me at the altar of the Lord, wherever you may be” (Conf. IX, 11). How many soldiers departed in a foreign land and stand in need of our prayers?
In addition to praying for the dead, the Mass also brings time together. St. Thomas says that the past, present, and future all have significance within the Eucharist (ST III.73.4). The bloody Sacrifice of Christ at Calvary—which happened in the past—is represented in the unbloody sacrifice upon the altar. In the present, we are brought together in the unity of Christ’s Church because we are graced by and physically receive his sacramental presence. Lastly, the future is foreshadowed in the fruit of eternal life promised in the sacrament. We receive something of God’s very own eternal life.
At Mass, we can bring the sacrifice of Christ into contact with fallen heroes who have sacrificed their lives. The past doesn’t have to remain in the past. We who partake of the one loaf become more tightly knit with the living and the dead. We enjoy in the present a real unity with our fellow patriots who are members of Christ’s one Church. Lastly, we pursue our true happiness which exists only in eternal friendship with God.
The physical freedom we enjoy, the fruit of our compatriots’ sacrifice, becomes a means for us to make our own sacrifice. We can truly give back in a real and tangible way to our fallen heroes. Going to Mass becomes the certain path to a Happy Memorial Day.
Photo by Arlington National Cemetery