Memorial Day was a day of remembrance and appreciation of those who have gone before us. There are the rightful tributes to freedom’s defenders, but the day also is set aside by many to remember those who’s lives weren’t bedecked with medals and purple hearts, but captured hearts: parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, siblings, friends. We spend the day honoring those who passed away after a hard-earned twilight had faded and those whose bud never bloomed, who tragically left us too early.
Amid the colorful and crunchy potato salads, relish-decked hot dogs, and fresh bags of potato chips at first-of-summer picnics it’s easy to forget to remember. But those of us still unwrapping the gift of life in today’s precious present need to pause and thank those who made it possible, and those are our parents, grandparents, and others who’ve charted the course that we now travel.
I’m lucky. I’m just past 40, in good health, and most of my loved ones are still with me and I’m grateful, but a day like Memorial Day is a time to give that gratitude a fleeting embrace. My life’s work has been spent chronicling the culture of those who celebrate plainly and simply, and this includes somber send-offs.
Amish cemeteries are solemn refuges where souls die as they live: quietly, unassuming and of the earth, returning to the soil in a cycle that repeats itself as predictably as the sun rises or the summer breezes softly caress. Your faith or absence of – choices granted by our country’s great freedom of worship - can determine whether we proceed to a better place. But there’s something sincere and genuine about the statement the Amish make in their cemeteries by simply not saying anything at all. There are no flowers, no stuffed teddy bears, no rippling fountains to mark the spot where a loved one rests, just the etched initials of the deceased on a wooden block in the most conservative cemeteries. One’s life doesn’t need an exclamation point, a clutch of roses, or a framed photo. Instead the names of the deceased tell the story for themselves. Other Amish burial places use simple headstones. Either way, it’s a no-frills journey of solitude.
Contrast it to the pomp and pageantry of the general population’s Memorial Day, set aside to honor and pay tribute to those who have passed. There is something equally poignant about pageantry despite it’s contrast to the quietude of the Amish.
CAPTIONS: Above, an Amish cemetery sits silent sentinel outside Grabill, Indiana. Despite her expression, Aster enjoyed her first Memorial Day parade, taking in all the noise and colors. Meanwhile, my 89-year-old grandmother enjoyed it equally, comforted by the familiarity of the parade's pageantry.
As I attended the Memorial Day parade yesterday with my soon-to-be 8-month old daughter, I was struck by the indelible image of my 89-year-old grandmother eyeing the marching bands, dancers, floats, and civic leaders in a parade of pomp she has witnessed more years than I’ve been alive. And right beside her was Aster a great generation removed from grandmother taking it all in for the first time. A woman in experiencing a gentle sunset after a hard life’s labor and a baby with just the faintest blush of light on the horizon awaiting the full appearance of a sun that has barely begun to rise. It was a juxtaposition of generations that spanned from the Roaring 20s to the internet-soaked 21st millennia. These were Aster’s first marching bands, first floats, first parade in her year of firsts. The pageantry a torch of tradition passed down from one generation to the next, a giddy and gaudy display of machine might, clomping horses, and tossed candy.
Perhaps there is truth to both. Perhaps our showcase of celebration allows us to seamlessly transfer our cultural and celebratory DNA to another generation who can pass it down like a treasured ornament, while the Amish way is the gift of solitude and reflection whose serene survival is an equally important testament in our increasingly noisy world.
So whether you prefer the pomp and pageantry of our parades and patriotic bunting or the solitude of an Amish cemetery I hope you enjoyed your day and savor your time and the company of loved ones in your life as well as the parades of the past and future. And also take a quiet Amish-like moment of solitude to reflect.