Cemeteries have their own form of celebrity. They are gardens planted with a peculiar type of seed, producing a forest of stone, metal and wooden markers in various configurations, but all with the same solemn message: Sorrow resides here. No matter how green the landscape, how well tended its attempt at grandeur, the beauty of a cemetery is merely a distraction from the bleak truth of its existence – death and our confrontation with an unyielding separation.
Such permanence ends dreams for those bound deep beneath the earth’s grasp as well as for those still upright yet clutched by grief’s unrelenting hand on the heart, relinquishing one’s desire only as the cruel ethereal dross of despair. In a world devoid of sin we still regard it as sin to deface, defame or denounce the sanctity of an exactitude we can only revere.
Beware, then, the fool who trespasses on its forlorn supremacy as an exemplar of our fate, ignoring the collective anguish of all survivors, for only hate ensues. It is best to consider the routine rituals of respect – laying wreaths, somber dress, bowing deep, bare-headed and contrite – if one cannot aspire to the heights of a Gettysburg moment.
President Lincoln set the benchmark for solemn commemoration of both a cause (a government of, by and for the people) and the individuals who gave “the last full measure of devotion” to that cause. His words are enshrined in marble halls, on bronze plaques and within the most humane of hearts, his own tomb a place of pilgrimage for those who know honor as a virtue and a debt.
One does not need to be president in order to express an honorable sentiment about the dead. And a president does not need to be as eloquent as Lincoln to attain a favorable comparison with his display of practiced character. But a president must be willing to go through the motions, even when it is raining, in order to avoid something far worse from descending upon him with the benighted grace of a raven instead of a dove.
The chosen emblem of respect, a plastic poppy for a boutonniere, can shield even the falsest heart over which it is placed. But absence can become an unforgiving presence in the hearts of others, who prey on such omissions as carrion for a scavenging beast. Sadly, in their desire to gorge, honor from any source is neglected in preference for other tantalizing morsels.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow between the crosses, row on row. So wrote John McCrae, who made a dire warning about those who break faith with the dead. His sentiment concerned those who exemplified the truth of Lincoln’s words about devotion, but the obligation to keep faith with the dead applies to us all. Yet another Gettysburg moment was lost on an anniversary made all the more preeminent in our awareness for its centenary attainment. Maybe in 2045 we will see a rebirth of sacred duty to those who lay buried in other fields but for the same cause that governments pledged to freedom will not perish beneath the burden of human greed and the lust for power.