Today is memorial day in America. Although this day had different names and different dates, the official holiday of Memorial Day was made a legal holiday in 1967. It is a day set aside specifically to honor the memory of people who died while serving in America’s armed forces.
Almost everyone in America has a relative who died serving in some conflict. World war 1, world war 2, Vietnam, the Korean conflict, the gulf war…something. I would bet that almost everyone living today has an ancestor that died in a war. If they didn’t die, they were wounded, or captured, or something else.
I for one, think it is a good and noble thing America is doing; setting a day aside to remember these people who gave their life. However they died, under whatever circumstances, they did so in the service of something larger than their self—right or wrong. There they were; putting themselves in harms way for a concept, an idea, or simply to help the man beside him. By my definition they are all heroes, each one of them.
My family has a slightly different tradition on Memorial Day. We travel to the graves of all our ancestors that are within traveling distance. There, we place flowers on their graves, we clean their stones. We remember them, and tell stories, and speak of their deeds in life. Then we honor their memory individually and as a family, wether they died in war or not.
We went and did this yesterday, on Sunday as is our custom. As I was standing in one of the the cemeteries yesterday I was awe struck by the number of flags I saw on graves. You see, in this cemetery, every veteran buried there has a flag placed on their grave by the cemetery staff. I was standing there looking at a sea of flags waving at the grave of each veteran.
I was touched, because I was looking an an Army of dead men who died in service. A literal Army of them based on the vast numbers of flags I saw. I was humbled, as I thought of the amount of blood spilt. The amount of individual pain and suffering each one of those flags represented. Then I was even more shook, as I thought of the impact all these deaths had on the family members of these brave souls.
They were fathers and sons and brothers and uncles. They were husbands, and men who were betrothed to marry. Each one of those flags I saw represented an enormous amount of pain and grief that affected entire families.
Then I looked at the graves of my own family. There were some flags, but many of them had no flags at all. Many of them were just ordinary people. People who have now become my ancestors. Most of them I knew, but some had passed before I was even born.
There they were, and there I was, with a handful of flowers in what seemed like a feeble attempt at honoring their memory. In that moment I felt wholly inadequate. I felt like nothing I did or said would come close to honoring these people as they should be honored.
I pondered this state of mind for a few moments. Then gradually a new thought entered my mind. It was the realization that I am the sum total of all these people in the ground beneath me. My presence alone suddenly became signifiant because were it not for the life and sacrifice of these people in the ground—I might not even exist. I came to realize that my very existence honored their memory. Just the fact that I was standing there.
With each beat of my heart the life and loves and sacrifices of my ancestors is given a shape and a sound and a purpose.
My thoughts didn’t stop there though. They continued to evolve and the next thing I started thinking about was the fact that one day, I would be the person in the ground. Some random member of my progeny might be standing above me with a handful of flowers, feeling inadequate. One day, I will be an ancestor. One day, all of us will be ancestors.
Out of all the thoughts I had yesterday I feel like the last one was the most profound. I thought about that unknown descendant who might venture to my grave one day to lay down flowers and attempt to honor my memory.
That persons life will be affected by choices I make now. This unknown persons life will be impacted by the way I live my life, the kind of man I am, and what stories I leave behind. I was reminded of the tremendous responsibility I have in this life. It isn’t just the people I know and love now to whom I am responsible—but to all of the generations to follow.
On this memorial day, wether you are in America or not, I suggest that you take some time to ponder the people who gave their life in service. Next, I suggest that you take a few moments to consider your own ancestors. Go to their grave if you are able to. Even if you don’t have any idea who your ancestors are. Even if you don’t know their names or their stories—you can still honor the fact that they existed. You can consider their life and their sacrifice, and realize that you came from them
Lastly, I suggest that you spend some time reflecting on your own mortality. Consider the fact that you will be an ancestor one day. Allow yourself to feel the weight of that responsibility for those people who will follow after you.
Then, go out into the world and be a better man today than you were yesterday.
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