‘That noblest of shrines’

May. 25, 2014 @ 08:12 PM

“You must reflect that it was by courage, sense of duty, and a keen feeling of honour in action that men were enabled to win all this…

“For this offering of their lives made in common by them all they each of them individually received that renown which never grows old, and for a sepulcher, not so much that in which their bones have been deposited, but that noblest of shrines wherein their glory is laid up to be eternally remembered upon every occasion on which deed or story shall call for its commemoration. For heroes have the whole earth for their tomb; and in lands far from their own, where the column with its epitaph declares it, there is enshrined in every breast a record unwritten with no tablet to preserve it, except that of the heart. These take as your model and, judging happiness to be the fruit of freedom and freedom of valor, never decline the dangers of war.”

Those words might easily have been uttered at one of the countless speeches offered or about to be offered during this Memorial Day weekend.

But the words were spoken, so we’re told, by the Athenian orator Pericles more than 24 centuries ago as a tribute to fellow citizens who died defending their city in the Peloponnesian War. Those sentiments, though, “could be applied today to the 1.1 million Americans who have died in the nation’s wars,” the Veterans Administration notes on its website’s history of Memorial Day.

Honoring those who, to borrow the words of another great orator, Abraham Lincoln, “gave their last full measure of devotion” for their country in war has a long and hallowed tradition -- as it should. As we remember those who have fallen we know that sadly, even in this moment of relative peace, Americans will die in some troubled land.

Memorial Day as we know it in this country grew out of the bitterest, bloodiest carnage in our history -- the Civil War. Historians debate the day of remembrance’s precise birthplace – as do boosters of the many cities that claim the honor. But its formal founding can reasonably be traced to Maj. Gen. John A. Logan, who on May 3, 1868, declared that “Decoration Day” -- a time to decorate the graves of the war dead -- should be observed on May 30.

“The first large observance was held that year at Arlington National Cemetery, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C..,” the Veterans Administration website notes.

For decades, many southerners recoiled from the northern, victorious tinge of the holiday, especially as the region undercut the war’s outcome with generations of brutal segregation and racial cruelty.

Today, though, Americans everywhere will, whether fleetingly or with somber ceremony -- as Pericles, Lincoln, Logan and legions of others urged -- remember those men and women whose lives were cut short by selfless service to their country.