May 22, 2020
Since moving back to Massachusetts six years ago, I have developed a sacred ritual. Each year, late in May, I pack up a rake and a trash bag, a bucket and a scrub brush, and make the drive out to Bedford. There I spend some quiet time tidying up the family graves. It’s a wooded spot, so there is the winter debris of leaves and branches to clear. The family headstone and the individual markers for my grandparents – and for the past four years, my father – all get a good scrub. Finally, having stopped off at the nursery, I leave behind some flowers. There are formal Memorial Day ceremonies in that cemetery as well. But I especially cherish the quiet, personal ritual. It’s about remembrance and gratitude.
Memorial Day, as you likely know, has its roots after the Civil War. In the years following the end of that cataclysmic conflict, many communities began holding commemorative gatherings and parades to honor the fallen. Decoration Day, as it came to be called, was established as a holiday on May 30th in all the Northern States by 1890.
The earliest antecedent might be a memorial event held in Charleston, South Carolina. Towards the end of the Civil War, the racetrack of a formerly posh country club was hastily turned into a prison for captured Union soldiers. More than 260 of them died of disease and exposure, and were buried in a mass grave behind the grandstand. When Charleston was surrendered to the North in February 1865, one of the first things done by a group of freed slaves was to give the Union soldiers a proper burial.
Then, on May 1, 1865, according to press reports in Charleston and New York, a crowd of 10,000 gathered – mostly freed slaves and some white missionaries – to parade around the race track, sing and pray. Members of the 54th Massachusetts regiment, and other black Union soldiers, marched that day. It’s an extraordinarily moving story about sacrifice and gratitude and remembrance.
Decoration Day took on renewed importance after each of the two World Wars. Gradually it became more widely known as Memorial Day, and it was established as a federal holiday in the 1960s. Perhaps when it was shifted from May 30 to become a Monday holiday in 1971, it began its cultural transformation from marking sacrifice with parades, to marking the beginning of summer with barbecues.
For the past six weeks or so, outside of my apartment in Boston, there has arisen a great ruckus at 7 p.m. every day. People on balconies of several surrounding buildings come out to holler and cheer and clap and bang pots. It is meant as an exuberant expression of gratitude to people on the front lines of the battle against the coronavirus – health care workers, sanitary workers and those whose supply of our basic needs enables so many of us to shelter safely. The movement is known by such monikers as #MakeAJoyfulNoise or #ClapBecauseWeCare.
In its European origins the sounds from the balcony were perhaps a bit more dignified: Italian musicians performing sonatas for their neighbors; Britons keeping calm and singing God Save the Queen. Hereabouts we bang pots and blow air horns. One nurse has pleaded with her neighbors to please stop waking up her baby every evening just before the mother has to head off to her hospital shift! Still, I expect that the impetus was noble. It’s about sacrifice and gratitude.
I myself am not a pot-banger nor a hollerer. The 7 o’clock clatter does not generally find me on the balcony. But I know I must find other ways for remembrance, sacrifice and gratitude. While not a yeller, I’m a pray-er. The opportunity for intercessory prayers is clear. While not having air horns to blow, I have resources to share. The opportunities to support those doing frontline battle with the coronavirus are countless, from United Way’s COVID Family Support Fund, to the MANNA ministry at our own cathedral. Local hospitals from Lowell General to MGH to Cape Cod Health Care – probably your local hospital – most of these have emergency funds for employees, or ways to provide meals for those laboring on our behalf. All of these, and more, are ways to express sacrifice and thankfulness.
On this Memorial Day weekend, I invite you to a time of remembrance and gratitude. Remember those in your own life and history who have made some sacrifice for you. And remember those who even now are making sacrifices for us all, that we might endure this frightening time.
Whether you are a pot-banger or a hymn-singer; a grave-decorator or a thank-you note writer; a prayer-lifter or a donation gifter; …may we each, in our own way, be people of gratitude and generosity.
Faithfully and fondly,
The Rt. Rev. Alan M. Gates