May 26, 2013 - From staff reportsMemorial Day: 'When everybody is alive'
Editor's note: In renewal of a growing Memorial Day tradition, we again reprint this comment by the late Hal Boyle, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Associate Press whose columns ran regularly in our newspaper for more than 25 years.
This column on Memorial Day was written in 1957:
America today wears a sprig of rosemary over its heart for remembrance.
A miracle of resurrection takes places in millions of households as the dead come home again -- and walk the Earth once more in gladness.
Their presence is invisible to the eye, inescapable to the spirit. For this haunting day of return they are as alive as we.
The loneliest man in the land is the man who has no one to remember on Memorial Day. He is indeed a soul lost -- a stranger on the Earth -- a pilgrim going from nothing to nowhere.
For it is the memory of the dead that in great measure keeps us human, that sets us apart from stone and star, moss and mole, and all other feeling and unfeeling prisoners of the great jailer, Time.
"What is Memorial Day," asks the child. "Will I get a present, like on Christmas?"
It is a hard question to answer. How can we, who are ourselves childishly bewildered by the mystery of both life and death, explain the puzzle of that living-loving death we call memory?
Perhaps the best answer you can give a child is to say "Memorial Day is the day when everyone you ever knew is alive, and nobody is dead."
Isn't that about as close as you can get, anyway?
The dead have far more power over our lives than we realize ordinarily. We read dead men's books, sing dead men's songs, obey dead men's laws. Dead men taught us to sow the Earth and reap the harvest.
Dead men won us our present perilous safety -- we especially honor them this day -- and to dead men we owe our finest visions of Heaven.
Every step upward we take in life has been made possible by the sacrificial steps taken by our guardian dead. As the preacher man says, "what is our own breath but a brief mist on the surface of death's endless deep?
Earth is pocked by more tombs than there are living men to journey to them. And so it is that one must pick and choose which dead to revisit on Memorial Day, which to spend a moment with -- or talk to for an hour.
Mostly, of course, we spend the time with those dearest to us through personal grief -- the lost relative, the absent friend, the cherished neighbor who moved away forever.
But on this day I like also to pick up old books and being to life again old comrades of my spirit I never know in the flesh -- fellows like John Keats, Thomas Hardy and Thomas Wolfe; girls like Sara Teasdale, Emily Dickinson and Mother Eve.
It is a corruption of Memorial Day to make of it a journey into sadness and scalding self-pity. Ideally it ought to be a shared voyage of rediscovery. For how often, when we summon up the memory of our dear dead, are we surprised to find that through some mystic alchemy we now understand them better and appreciate them more than when they walked daily among us!
Perhaps, on Memorial Day, the dead may even feel the same way toward us, the living.
It may well be. Surely, if life has a perspective, then death does, too.