How will you spend Memorial Day? I will be in a cemetery this Memorial Day. One year ago, Ladue native, Air Force First Lieutenant Rozlyn Schulte, died as a casualty of a road side bomb in Afghanistan. With her family, we shall return to her grave to dedicate the stone marker that cannot replace her smile, her laughter, her determination.
Every year, we would be wise to remind ourselves that the holiday began as Decoration Day, when families were supposed to visit cemeteries and decorate the graves of their beloved Civil War dead. As a general rule, I do not visit cemeteries on Memorial day. In my line of work, I already spend a lot of down time in cemeteries. I am either waiting for funerals to begin or for funeral processions to arrive for the completion of a burial service. The down time is never more than thirty minutes, or so. During bad weather I will just sit in my car and read a book or magazine. When the weather is pleasant, I will leave my car and take a stroll down the rows and columns of grave markers and monuments.
Walks through cemeteries are a unique and unconventional way to study local history. Every St. Louis cemetery established before the 20th Century is often an untapped resource, providing insights into the social, cultural, and religious life of our town. A case in point is New Mt. Sinai Cemetery on Gravois opened in 1850. It is listed on the National Historical Register, in large measure because of the Mausoleum and monument art to be found there. Evidence of tragedy is all around. The great Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 is an abstraction until you come across a section filled with children’s graves. You can tell they are children’s graves because the monuments depict tree stumps or reclining lambs. The tree stumps symbolize a life cut off before its time. The reclining lamb across the top of a headstone indicates the grave of a child, as innocent as a lamb. The remains of mass death give us all pause for thought
With the inevitable passing of the “Greatest Generation,” I have been spending a great deal of time at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery. Funerals or interments there follow traditions more than 150 years old. Waves of white marble tablets record the names, ranks, and units of more recent burials. Mottled grey stone tablets, made smooth by wind blown rain, indicate much older battlegrounds and campaigns. There are an extraordinary number of Civil War casualties buried there from both Union and Confederate armies. The truth is, there is not a cemetery in our region established before 1865 that does not honor the beloved remains of Civil War casualties.
President Lincoln, in his Gettysburg Address, made note of the fact that the cemetery at Gettysburg would hold the remains of both Union and Confederate soldiers. His expressed hope was to begin the reconciliation process by not insisting on the denigration of Confederate dead by placing them in unmarked graves. Lincoln was not naïve. He understood that joint military cemeteries would not resolve conflicts. They would, however, serve as stark reminders of the cost of war.
This weekend, Boy Scouts and other volunteers will place American flags on the graves of veterans in Jefferson Barracks and in every other cemetery in our region. Flowers left on the graves will be testimony to broken hearts and shattered dreams. Comfort for the grieving often arrives with the conviction that their beloved dead did not die for nothing, for no worthy purpose, in vain. Sometimes such comfort cannot be.
All wars are tragic. Some wars are fought for a noble purpose. Other wars are fought to sustain evil rather than end it. Glory in war is an illusion. Unrelenting grief is the reality. In every war, there will be soldiers who died in vain. This holiday weekend is not the time to ask troubling moral questions. Now, we simply honor soldiers lives cut short and the pain of their families. Politics and historical revision can wait.
(The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. Louis Public Radio.)
Mark Shook is Rabbi Emeritus at Temple Israel.