Rev. Kevin Tarsa
A sermon delivered May 30, 2021 via Zoom to the
Unitarian Universalist Community of the Mountains
(Preceded by Remembering Well by Paul S. Sawyer.)
For those of us who remain, it’s about remembering well.
Who are you remembering today?
I’ve been thinking about someone I never met.
I’ve shared that my grandfather was disowned by his family, and since my grandmother had only one sibling, my dad’s few cousins were, I think, very precious to him. All his life he remembered and named that his cousin Stevie had died in WWII. I thought he had said in the bombing of Pearl Harbor, but Stephen died in action in Germany in March 1945, his body not returned to Pennsylvania and his parents and family until nearly three years later, in December 1948.
Whether it was Stevie, or perhaps a different relative of whom my father spoke, my father spoke not only with a sense of love and of painful loss, but also with a unique reverence for his cousin’s sacrifice. It was a reverence that caught my young attention.
History and meaning of Memorial Day
As you likely know, Memorial Day remembers and honors those who died while serving in the U.S. military.
It began as Decoration Day in the 1860s, in particular in the Union states, as an honoring of the quarter of a million lives lost in the Civil War. Not a war with another nation or in some other location on the planet, but a war within our nation and on this soil. Honoring the dead then was not salved by a unified “‘rah, rah”’ for the United States,; it was instead mired in the messy and continuing pain of the Divided States of America. I imagine that many cemeteries – Unitarian and Universalist cemeteries too – – were homes to both healing encounters of parallel grief, and tense and unwelcome reminders of the reasons for it.
It has always been difficult for me to imagine the painful emotional dynamics of such an intensely divided nation and intensely divided families as were present during the Civil War, or the Vietnam War, until recently – when more and more of us are experiencing glimpses of such passionately and maddeningly opposing perspectives. Now I see how it can happen; I feel how it can happen.
For all the scores of years that have passed since the end of the US Civil War, it’s become clear that that war has never really ended. Much of the conflict and divide underneath the Civil War simply mutated, into forms which we’ve carried into today, often asymptomatically, at least on the surface, and with many kinds of casualties.
But back to Memorial Day, for this morning…
There had been numerous Decoration Days already around the nation when in 1868 the leader of an organization for Northern Civil War veterans called for a nationwide day of remembrance to be held on May 30, a date chosen because it was not the anniversary of any well-known battle. It was held “for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land.”
It was a way of remembering well.
Over time, as other wars arose, the celebration grew to commemorate American military personnel who had died in any of our wars, and it became the federal holiday of Memorial Day in 1971.
But as is so often true, there are missing and invisible pieces to the story.
More of the Story
I learned only recently, that the likely first memorializing event took place on May 1, 1865, less than a month after the Confederate Army surrendered. It happened in Charleston, South Carolina, at a race track that had been used to house Union prisoners, and where the hundreds of Union soldiers who had died there were buried in a mass grave.
As Dave Roos writes, “When Charleston fell and Confederate troops evacuated the badly damaged city, those freed from enslavement remained. One of the first things those emancipated men and women did was to give the fallen Union prisoners a proper burial. They exhumed the mass grave and reinterred the bodies in a new cemetery with a tall whitewashed fence inscribed with the words: ‘“Martyrs of the Race Course.’”
And then on May 1, he notes, a crowd of 10,000, mostly formerly enslaved people with some white missionaries, held a parade around the race track. “Three thousand Black schoolchildren carried bouquets of flowers and sang ‘John Brown’s Body.’ Members of the famed 54th Massachusetts and other Black Union regiments were in attendance and performed double-time marches. Black ministers recited verses from the Bible.”
Imagine the moment.
Long forgotten, buried, in fact, because it was not a story that served those who had the most power to share it.
The poet Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo, a daughter of Mexican immigrants, went searching at Gettysburg National Military Park for the Civil War graves of Mexican soldiers. She was there, in 2017, as the official “Poet in the Park.” Not a Spanish name in sight, in the Gettysburg memorials, though later, from others sources, she began to unearth the stories. Instead, at Gettysburg, Bermejo found Klu Klux Klan books on display in the park’s gift shop.
In her poem, “Battlegrounds,” written at that time, she writes:
I invite the unseen to speak. . . .
In war, not all bodies are returned home
nor graves marked.
I do not usually feel a strong personal pull to the celebration of Memorial Day, but this year – this year – I feel drawn to memorialize not only those who died in active military service, but also those who served and who died by delay, and those many, many others who lost or who gave their lives in service to the yet-to-be-fully-realized idea and ideals of this nation, especially those who died for an America that never was truly America to them, as Langston Hughes framed it.
I’m remembering a friend and long-time neighbor, veteran of the Vietnam War, who took his own life years after his recognized service, the cost of his service that never really ended until he did.
I’m remembering a congregant who suffered for many years the damaging effects in his body of agent orange, though convincing the powers-that-be of the connection to his suffering health took years, persistence, courage.
I’m remembering the Ottowa people of Michigan who fought both against and for the United States over the centuries – the sharpshooters of Company K, a total Ottowa Indian company in the Civil War, whose ancient families had been forced out of so much beautiful and sustaining Michigan landscape, and who themselves had just recently been funneled into a small, impoverished reservation just outside the property my immigrating great grandparents would soon acquire and use to build a life and a legacy in a new country.
I’m remembering the larger body of American Indians and Alaska Natives who, despite the centuries of attempts to eradicate them, are said to have the highest per capita involvement of any population to serve in the US military – remembering Lori Ann Piestewa (PEES-too-wah), a Hopi citizen who was ambushed and taken prisoner in Iraq in 2003 and who died in an Iraqi hospital – the first woman in the US military killed in the Iraq war.
I’m remembering the unseen Nisenan who have fought here for their lives within the violent, roaring sweep of the Gold Rush that also has never really ended, merely changed shape, carried on now in some of our own pursuits of various kinds of riches.
As we find our way through what the Rev. William Barber identifies as the third reconstruction, with its predictable and sobering backlash to perceived progress, even miniscule progress, in racial or caste equity, I’m remembering those seen and unseen, who, generation after generation moved to the front, willing to offer their lives in service of freedom and justice they had never received nor fully known…yes, members of Black regiments, but also those unnumbered at war fronts as simple and as dangerous as lunch counters and school sidewalks. Persons of Chinese, Japanese, Asian and Mexican descent, whose rights were denied or removed even after they had built so much wealth for others and defended the nation’s interests.
I’m remembering those who continue to put their lives on the line for the America they believe is possible.
I’m remembering, too, those like my father’s cousin, who fought, willingly or unwillingly, in the US armed services, to protect a world, a people, a nation, an ideal, a pride, a principle…
Who are you remembering this Memorial Day weekend?
Dear loved ones?
Some of the unseen? In graves unmarked by memory?
I don’t usually do much memorializing on Memorial Day, but I think I WILL go to a cemetery tomorrow…the large cemetery near my home, or the Jewish cemetery on the hill in Grass Valley, or one of the old quiet rural cemeteries under the beautiful pines. I’ll take some of the pink peonies in the yard, and look for a grave, feel for a grave that somehow speaks to me of sacrifice for something beyond oneself, and I will do my best to remember, so that the sacrifices of which I do know of will not be lost on me…
Before I leave that cemetery, I think I will hum taps…to my dad’s cousin, to the seen and unseen, to the remembered and unremembered…in the hopes that they do sleep in peace, and that their legacies might encourage my own commitment to both justice and peace, that they might speak to me in my heart and soul about dying, about what matters, about remembering well, that I might be heart-centered and ready for the journey to come.
May your own Memorial Day rituals center your heart, and ready you for the journey.
So may we be.
Works Cited, Referenced, Consulted
Remembering Well. A short article by Paul S. Sawyer about his time playing Taps for a local cemetery.
One of the Earliest Memorial Day Ceremonies was Held by Freed African Americans. A brief history by Dave Roos on one of the first Memorial Day ceremonies, which was observed by African Americans honoring fallen Union soldiers.
Battlegrounds. A poem about Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo’s wandering through the cemetery at the Gettysburg National Military Park.