Stephen recalled his experience of Memorial Day some years ago at Moana Park in Oahu. He wrote:
“I don’t mean to discount official Memorial Day military ceremonies, which I’ve attended before in my hometown – but I found this massive, collective participation ritual that combined joy, reflection, grief, and nature (releasing souls back into the abyss of sea and sky) particularly moving, joyful, and life-affirming. The focus wasn’t just on war dead (though they, too, were celebrated), but on family, and the embrace of this inevitability as part of the natural cycle.”
The subtext to every memorial and every memorial ritual across a multiplicity of cultures is always the same: Let us never forget.
The direct objects of that admonition spring to mind somewhat chronologically for me, admittedly with an American or Euro-centric bias: The Alamo, Pearl Harbor, the Holocaust, the twin towers.
But the truth is forgetfulness is built into the human condition. We are a reproductive species and those memories which cannot hitch a ride in our genes are always in peril of being lost to time, vast, implacable, indifferent time. The system is stacked against remembering. One generation must constantly be reminded of what the previous generation held dear, even sacred. It is why we have the Seder and the Eucharist and the Hajj. It’s a dilemma that Campbell saw so clearly and described so well, in terms of religion but he might as well have been speaking about any epochal event in the stream of human history.
“You cannot export myth. Either through space or through time…. Here is a mythology that grew out of a social context that is so far away from what we have now that it is not servicing our psyches. It always has to be interpreted to us” (Hero, p.243).
With this in mind, I faced the usual dilemma of a music teacher on Memorial Day some twenty-five years ago. My high school students had no reaction to the patriotic music in our library. I judged them harshly for that. Okay, the Star Spangled Banner doesn’t get their blood pumping. How about a setting in five-part harmony? No? Nothing. What about She’s a grand old flag, she’s a high flying flag and forever in peace may she wave? America the Beautiful? Most of these students had no experience of war or military service and exhibited an indifference to the idea that freedom is bought and paid for by the sacrifice of others. I don’t blame them. They have only known freedom. It is like a fish being asked to get excited about water. A sensible wide-mouth bass might logically ask, “What’s water?” If water is all you know it remains unknowable.
Freedom and its absence must be, as Campbell saw clearly, interpreted. The farther downstream from Valley Forge—or Pearl Harbor—the more challenging the task. My Canoga Park High school choir and I ended up writing a song and I recall the lyrics quite well.
In your darkest hour, America, I’ll be right there with you
In your times of trouble, America, I will come through.
I seldom say it, how much I love you and in your darkest hour
I will be red, white and blue.
That was the chorus. It was written a couple of years before 9/11, which makes it somewhat prescient. Their verses had some charm and caught the essence of one generation’s indifference to the mindset of the past.
I can never find my flag on the fourth of July
Never had to stand at attention when the general walks by
When I sing the Star Spangled Banner, I never cry
but there’s something inside me that can’t be denied.
In your darkest hour… etc.
The past is continually lost but is, as Eliade pointed out, partly recoverable through ritual and liturgy. And, from my point of view, those who do not remember history are condemned to sing it.