Memorial Day

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2007 Daniel Harper.


The first reading this morning is by Dana Greeley, who was my Unitarian Universalist minister when I was in my teens and twenties. Lest you think this is a commentary on the current political situation, I must tell you that this was written thirty-two years ago:

“War is insanity in this day and age. It is total destructiveness; it is total immorality; it is total waste. The end of war should be our goal today. Negotiation should be our commitment. We ourselves ought to be both wiser and more ethical than our fathers, but we are not….

“I covet for America not the fear of the nations but a stronger moral leadership, and not the hatred but the respect of humanity. You may disagree with me, of course; but I make a plea, as strongly as I can, both for the strengthening of the United Nations and for the abolition of war.

“How can we broaden and deepen our own lives? How can we make ourselves more world-oriented, and make the life of our church and our community broader and deeper and more world-oriented? We are the citizens of America! We are America itself, and if we are giving and forgiving and magnanimous and resolute and peaceful, America will be giving and forgiving and magnanimous and resolute and peaceful.

“If we can overcome anger and violence, America will overcome anger and violence. If we can believe and demonstrate that love is better than hate, America will do away with hatred and with arrogance and fear. If we can be persuaded that right makes might more than might makes right, then America will rely less on its… weapons, and even alter its policies. Do we believe in truth and goodwill and the oneness of humanity more than we believe in falsehood and retaliation and war?…”

The second reading this morning is a poem by Thomas Hardy titled “The Son’s Portrait.” It should be noted that to an Englishman like Hardy, a “lumber-shop” does not sell wood, a “lumber-shop” sells junk, or more politely, antiques:

I walked the streets of a market town,
    And came to a lumber-shop,
Which I had known ere I met the frown
        Of fate and fortune,
    And habit led me to stop.

In burrowing mid this chattel and that,
    High, low, or edgewise thrown,
I lit upon something lying flat —
        A fly-specked portrait,
    Framed. ‘Twas my dead son’s own.

“That photo? . . . A lady — I know not whence —
    Sold it me, Ma’am, one day,
With more. You can have it for eighteen-pence:
        The picture’s nothing;
    It’s but for the frame you pay.”

He had given it her in their heyday shine,
    When she wedded him, long her wooer:
And then he was sent to the front-trench-line,
        And fell there fighting;
    And she took a new bridegroom to her.

I bought the gift she had held so light,
    And buried it — as ’twere he. —
Well, well! Such things are trifling, quite,
        But when one’s lonely
    How cruel they can be!


Tomorrow is Memorial Day; or, to use the original name, Decoration Day. It began as a day to remember the Union soldiers who had died during the Civil War, who had died to end the horrendous institution of slavery. And it is instructive for us today to recall how, exactly, Memorial Day began.

According to David Blight, a professor of history and black studies at Yale University, Memorial Day was first celebrated in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1865. The city of Charleston had been evacuated, and the only non-combatants remaining in the city were African Americans who could not get out. The last months of the Civil War saw Charleston bombarded by Union gunboats; and the Confederate Army had established a prison camp on the site of a race course. Two hundred and fifty-seven Union soldiers died in that prison camp, and their bodies were unceremoniously dumped into a mass grave as the Confederate army retreated.

In April, 1865, the African Americans remaining in Charleston decided that those dead Union soldiers deserved a proper burial. And so they worked to create a proper gravesite for the Union dead buried in that mass grave. African American carpenters built a good, solid fence around the new grave yard. African American laborers worked to convert the old race course into a restful and beautiful place. At last, they disinterred the bodies of the dead Union soldiers, and placed them respectfully into individual graves.

By the end of April, the work was done. To officially open the new grave yard, the African American community organized a parade. Some ten thousand people showed up to march in that parade, beginning with African American schoolchildren who were finally being taught in free school, and ordinary adult African American citizens. White Americans were also invited to join the parade; invitations were extended to some nearby Union regiments, and to a number of white abolitionists. All these people gathered in the new graveyard. They listened to preachers. They honored the dead. They sang songs like “America the Beautiful,” and “John Brown’s Body,” and old spirituals. And at last they settled down to picnic lunches, while they watched the Union regiments drilling in what used to be the infield of the old race course.

That’s how the very first Memorial Day was celebrated. Professor David Blight says, “This was the first Memorial Day. Black Charlestonians had given birth to an American tradition. By their labor, their words, their songs, and their solemn parade of roses and lilacs and marching feet on their former masters’ race course, they had created the Independence Day of the Second American Revolution.” [Commonplace, vol. 1, no. 4, July, 2001; American Antiquarian Society/ Florida State University History Department.]

I tell you this story by way of introducing the idea that Memorial Day, or Decoration Day, is more than just a long weekend to begin the official summer season, more than just a convenient excuse for a three-day weekend. And I tell you this story by way of demonstrating to you that Memorial Day celebrations should not be ceded to the self-proclaimed patriots who glorify war. Memorial Day is a day to show respect for those who have died in battle; it is a day to show proper respect for graves and gravesites. Memorial Day is not a military holiday; it is a day organized by ordinary citizens. So it is that Memorial Day has become more than a military holiday; it has become a day to remember and to honor all our dead.

Our society has a tendency to gloss over unpleasant details. We are relentlessly optimistic. It is good to be optimistic, but it is not so good to be relentlessly optimistic to the point where we rewrite history to take out all the unpleasant parts. Our society calls the Second World War the “Good War,” optimistically glossing over the bad bits like all the ordinary citizens who were killed and wounded. Our society mentions the First World War, conveniently forgetting that while it was called “The War To End All Wars,” it was really only the beginning of a century of wars. We think back with a certain fondness to the good old Civil War, passing lightly over the unpleasant fact that while the Civil War ended chattel slavery, it did not end the oppression and exploitation of African Americans. In other words, we have a tendency to conveniently forget unpleasant facts.

We’re not unlike the unnamed war widow in the poem by Thomas Hardy. She had had a long engagement with a young man; at last they wed;

    “And then he was sent to the front-trench-line,
        And fell there fighting;
    And she took a new bridegroom to her.”

That war widow found a new husband, which is understandable. Perhaps it wasn’t understandable to the young man’s mother, but we can understand the need to get on with life. But when that war widow sold off her husbands’ photograph, it sounds as if she was trying to forget inconvenient facts. Yes, we can understand the impulse that made her sell the photograph. It can sometimes seem easier to push the dead out of our memories, to get rid of everything that reminds us of them, so that we don’t have to think about anyone who has died. In particular, we don’t want to have to think about anyone who has died in a war. If we have to remember those who died in war, then we might also have to remember that we bear at least some responsibility for all the wars our country wages. It’s easier to just sell off the old photographs, so that we don’t have to remember. And yet, when we hear about the war widow who did just that, in Thomas Hardy’s poem, I don’t feel comfortable with the idea. It sounds a little bit cold-blooded. I would have liked it better if she had tucked the photograph up in the attic, or at least respectfully burned it.

On the other hand, what are we to make of the narrator of the poem, the woman who is the mother of the young man who died in the front-trench-lines? She buys the portrait of her dead son, and that we can fully understand; I know I would want to rescue it from a junk shop myself. But then to bury the portrait; that seems to place an undue importance on an unimportant thing. I don’t feel comfortable with that idea, either.

Too often, our celebrations of Memorial Day go to one or the other of these extremes. At one extreme, many people completely ignore the true meaning of Memorial Day. Of course celebration and picnicking ought to be a part of any observance of Memorial Day. Back in May, 1865, the citizens of Charleston, South Carolina, observed the very first Memorial Day with celebration and picnicking. They celebrated the end of war, and more than that they celebrated the freedom of African Americans. They had picnics, too. But they didn’t ignore the deeper meaning of the day; rather, they balanced the celebration and the picnicking with a consciousness of the importance of the holiday.

At the other extreme, we find a small number of people who use Memorial Day to glorify war, glorify militarism, and gloss over the unpleasant realities of past and present wars. It should be clear that these people pervert the meaning of Memorial Day as much as the people who completely ignore the deeper meaning of the day. Memorial Day isn’t a day to glorify war, it is a day to recognize and honor those persons who died in war; originally, it was a day to honor gravesites, and to remember and honor the individuals who have died.

I want to propose a middle ground between these two extremes. Memorial Day isn’t just a frivolous holiday, a day to go on vacation and spend money; and Memorial Day isn’t a day to glorify war. It’s a day to honor the dead. We honor those who died in military service, but Memorial Day has grown larger than that. It’s a day to honor the sacrifices of those who fought and worked for the greater good.

That should not be a controversial proposal to adopt, though it will be a difficult proposal to adopt. We face so much pressure to think of Memorial Day merely as nothing more than the holiday which is the official start of summertime, that it will take some effort to remember to set aside time to honor our dead. All of us here are honoring the true intent of Memorial Day, because by coming here to church we are treating Memorial Day as more than just another three day weekend.

And I would like to propose that one way we can honor our dead, in this age of increasing intensity in warfare, is to commit ourselves to putting an end to war. In our first reading this morning, Dana Greeley wrote, “War is insanity in this day and age. It is total destructiveness; it is total immorality; it is total waste. The end of war should be our goal today.” Perhaps the best way to honor our dead soldiers is to end warfare altogether.

For at least a couple of thousand years, people have argued about whether we should expend our efforts trying to end war completely; or whether we should accept that war is inevitable, and that we should instead work to place acceptable limits on war. Followers of Jesus of Nazareth, followers of Gotama Buddha, followers of those religious prophets who proclaim that our highest moral purpose should be love of our fellow human beings — many of these people have maintained that we must put an end to war. But other high-minded people have taken the pragmatic view that we have not yet ended war, we are not likely to end war, and therefore we have to work within those realistic limits.

The crucial point that Dana Greeley made back in 1975 was that the stakes are now so high that we must end war, not only for moral reasons, but for pragmatic reasons. In the days of the Civil War, you could argue that there was no other option but to go to war; if we wanted to move our country beyond our dependence on slavery, war seemed inevitable. The costs of the Civil War, the bloodiest war our country has ever fought in, the costs were very high indeed. But today, war has become incredibly more costly, incredibly more destructive. The invention of atomic bombs and missiles which can carry those bombs to any point on the globe now mean that one war could conceivably end all or most human life on Earth. Even without atomic weaponry, the wars of the past three decades or so have involved a huge loss of life among non-combatants; the careful limitations on war that the pragmatists had worked so hard to implement are no longer being observed. Technology has also led to the development of additional weapons of mass destruction — the chemical weapons which were used in the First World War, the new biological and radioactive weapons of mass destruction — and these weapons of mass destruction also upset the pragmatists’ careful limitations on war. In today’s world, the costs of war have gotten so high that I believe we can no longer consider war to be an acceptable answer.

I’m sure some of you will disagree with my views. Further, I’m quite aware that I don’t have the final answer to the problem of warfare. But this I believe:– that as the technology of war has evolved, so we must evolve our moral beings. We are awed by all the high technology our country has been able to use to prosecute the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. We should be awed far more by our growing ability to negotiate non-military solutions to world conflicts. Rather than expending so much time and money on improving our military technology, the more important task is to continue to improve our moral beings, with the goal of evolving so far that we no longer need to use our military technology.

Therefore, I believe that a proper observance of Memorial Day would have us going back to the original observance of Memorial Day, back in 1865 in Charleston, South Carolina. Let us recall what about that original observance of Memorial Day we should continue in our own observances.

The African American originators of Memorial Day had a parade with military regiments — but in that parade, the military regiments were outnumbered by the ordinary citizens. Such a parade represents our ideals of the democracy for which all our wars have been fought. In a democracy, we honor the ordinary citizen above all; just as we honor the rule of law above military might. And such a parade would also represent our religious ideals. In our religious tradition, we honor the inherent worth and dignity of each person more than we honor the mass mind of the military regiment; and we honor the forces of love and respect which bind us together more than we honor military might.

Those originators of Memorial Day spent time honoring their dead. We should continue to do this today. We can honor those who die in military service, even if we happen to disagree with the principles of the war in which they were killed. And we can honor those people who may have fought for truth and justice using non-violent means, people like Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mahatma Ghandi. We can honor all our dead on Memorial Day, reflecting on how that which was good in them can live on in us.

Those originators of Memorial Day spent part of their day listening to preaching and political speeches. I believe that we should continue this part of the original Memorial Day. The art of public speaking, and the art of listening to public speaking, are necessary for democracy. Democracy does not proceed by having one person, or small group of persons, imposing their will on everyone else. Democracy thrives when we can debate, openly and in public and face-to-face, the crucial issues of our day. Democracy thrives when we can listen to others and learn their wants and needs, when we can see them as people just like ourselves. Whereas sitting in front of the television set, conducting opinion polls, and expensive advertisements tear at the fabric of democracy. And from a religious point of view, we consider the art of speaking and of listening to be necessary to the practice of our religion. Our religion does not proceed by having one person, or small group of persons, imposing their will on everyone else. Our religion thrives when we can talk openly and in person about the most important moral and ethical and religious issues. Our religion thrives when we listen to one another and learn to love one another as we love ourselves. In our religious tradition, sermons are the center of our worship services, because we believe so strongly in the power of the word to change us for the better.

And finally, those originators of Memorial Day, back in 1865, ended with a picnic. We should continue that tradition today. After we honor our dead, we should celebrate life. After we listen to formal speeches and sermons, we should indulge in the joy of casual conversation over a shared meal. That first Memorial Day was a time to honor the dead, but it was also a time to celebrate the return of peace. At last, the citizens of Charleston, South Carolina, no longer lived in fear of war and violence and destruction. They recognized that it was a time of celebration.

As it was at that first Memorial Day picnic, so may it be today. Even though we remain entangled in a war that is seemingly without end, we work towards ending warfare. We can celebrate democracy, even as we commit ourselves to re-energizing our democratic principles and practices. We can celebrate our hard-won freedoms, even as we commit ourselves to ongoing improvement of our moral beings that will allow us to build an even better world in the years to come.