I guess that was not the only grave I visited that weekend. I went to the Pearl Harbor memorial. And, again, there is a relation between the intention of the memorial and its greater meaning. The men who lie forever entombed in the steel carcass of the Arizona call upon our deepest patriotic sensibilities but what a shame if that is where we stop. We are always ready to concretize the mystery in some half-way house of shared values like Patriotism, and, well, that’s good for memorial day weekend.
Thanks, John, for sharing these thoughts about the Pearl Harbor memorial (which I found a truly moving experience) and our honoring of the war dead on Memorial Day –– especially the point you make in the succeeding paragraph about the aftermath of war.
On a related note, exactly ten years ago my wife and I were in Honolulu representing JCF at the Voyage of Aloha conference over the Memorial Day weekend. We had arrived a few days early to take in the sights, which included a visit to the National Cemetary up in the Punchbowl, where preparations were underway for the huge memorial celebration – flags being placed on graves and lining the drive up to the cemetery, rows and rows of chairs being set up, honor guard and military band practicing, etc.
We had considered returning on the holiday itself as part of the crowd honoring the war dead
. . . but we then spent several days rubbing shoulders with locals (rather than staying near Waikiki, as on my first visit to the islands a few years before, we stayed closer to downtown, at the Pagoda, an aging hotel where locals from other islands stay when on Oahu). Several Hawaiians recommended we see how those who live on the islands observe death by instead spending Memorial Day at the Ala Moana park and beach (about a half mile walk from our lodging, I had bathed in the ocean at Ala Moana during a dawn water ritual led by indigenous kahunas to open our conference a few days before).
Best decision ever.
Late afternoon on Memorial Day, my wife and I walked to Ala Moana Park. Instead of a somber atmosphere with color guards, rows of flags, military jets flying in formation overhead, trumpets, 21-gun salutes, and all the usual patriotic ritual, the scene resembled one massive picnic in the park – children running around and playing, families feasting on everything from hot dogs or fried chicken to spam sandwiches, poi, sushi, and more exotic fare – but in addition to the usual holiday activities, every family group was also busy creating little paper boat lanterns, in which they placed the names of relatives who had died, along with poems and such honoring their memory. As the sun set, and large, rough-hewn outrigger canoes with a dozen or more rowers each plied the waters of the little bay, a Buddhist monk and Shinto priestess led a memorial ceremony amplified over loudspeakers.
Then the thousands and thousands of participants all slowly worked their way to the shore where, after a moment of silence and reflection, they released their lighted lantern boats upon the water and then made way for others; at the same time, a smaller number of people released paper lantern balloons into the air, the flaming candles all representing the souls of the departed.
Despite the size of throng, we found ourselves soon enough at water’s edge, where we witnessed hundreds of moving personal ceremonies as the boats and balloons were released. The effect was spectacular. Once the sky grew dark, it was difficult to distinguish between the lanterns on the waves, the paper balloons in the air, and the stars in the night sky above – all was but one vast three-dimensional field filled with individual points of light.
(Forgive the fuzziness of this image from an old phone, taken before the sun had fully set, but it does convey the sense of the lantern ceremony)
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.