Enumclaw Washington is one of those rare towns that still observes a very old and noble tradition, that of visiting the cemeteries to honor the graves of the dead. Kathleen’s family generally visits the cemetery on Mother’s Day, Memorial Day, and Father’s Day. In fact, our very first Family Friday ever was about Memorial Day cemetery flowers. The local Catholic parish used to go to the Old Crane cemetery on All Souls Day (not sure if they still do), and a lot of Enumclawnians go to the newer Enumclaw cemetery to put candles on the graves of loved ones.
We went up there today for the Memorial Day weekend, and planted flags and flowers.
And of course, as with most of you, my facebook feed has been flooded with “Remember the Fallen,” posts all day. My friends are pretty evenly divided between military guys and their families who honor the fallen with a fierce, almost touchy respect, that almost dares you to go ahead and say something against our fallen servicemen and women; and the more left-leaning crowd who gently acknowledge that, yes, they were brave to lay down their lives, and we can respect that sacrifice, but let’s take a moment to question the political and economic structures of violence and oppression that sent them over there in the first place.
And then there are the folks that are more like: “Any excuse for a BBQ, y’all!”
My own thoughts on memorial day, patriotism, sacrifice, courage, honor, the military service, politics, violence, peace etc. are too complex and complicated to deal with here. I have known my share of guys who were wounded, inside and outside, by the war. I have attended more military funerals than I wished to. It is definitely right and just to honor the fallen.
But as a Catholic, as I was walking through that cemetery today, a phrase kept repeating itself in my head:
Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis. Requiescant in pace. Amen.From the Traditional Requeim Mass
You see, I’ve known a few military guys in my time. Most were decent sort of guys, according to their lights. Some few were humble, heroic giants among men. A few were sleaze-balls. But all were sinners.
This is where the Catholic understanding of visiting cemeteries differs from that of most people in the world. For us it is not primarily about remembering our loved ones, or honoring the courage of those who laid down their lives, or trying to connect with our past. These are all good things, but they are not the real reason we go. The real reason we go is to pray for their souls.
There is a tendency in our world to eulogize the dead, especially the military dead. We no longer say “funeral” we say “Memorial service” or “celebration of life.” We say “so-and-so is in a better place now,” or is “with Jesus.”We tell stories that cast our loved ones in the best possible light, magnify their virtues, minimize or make light of their faults. These are good and healthy instincts. Time should soften our memories, make us deal mercifully with those who went before, as we hope to be dealt mercifully with we go. But that is not the real business of the funeral Mass, the Requiem, and the subsequent visits to the cemetery.
The Church’s business is to remind us of the hard truth that we are all sinners. The greatest saint stands in need of mercy. We have forgotten the doctrines of hell and purgatory. Some people may be refusing friendship with God, even down to the last minute. Many more may be putting it off, or ignoring it, or too distracted or busy to think about it, or bound up in some addiction and unable to accept it. We say “So-and-so is in heaven now” but what we should say is that we hope they are in heaven. The truth is we don’t know.
This may sound harsh. It is not meant to be. As I said it is good and healthy to remember the best, forgive and forget the worst, and hope all things on God’s infinite mercy. That is exactly the point. Instead of prematurely canonizing our loved ones when they die, we should be praying for them. Offering sacrifices for them. Requesting Masses be said for them.
I have known a few military guys who are no longer here. None of them were saints, any more than I am. All were sinners, just as I am. I honor them with flags and flowers, with my training, with our gardening and barbecuing. But I also pray for them, as I hope someday someone will pray for me:
God, have mercy on their souls.