On Memorial Day I wheeled my mother through the twists and turns of Hillside Cemetery in Ardsely, Pa., and she remarked that there was no one there. Nor was there a bouquet by a headstone to be found.
Her observation took me back to my childhood, a time when a cemetery was a beehive of activity, and I was only one of many keeping up with my maternal grandmother on her way to a patch of red, white, and blue flags on a hill in Woonsocket, R.I. We came every year “to see Norman.” Norman was the uncle I knew only by a yellowed Navy photo and the wood carving of a sailor he chipped out as a young boy. Norman was nowhere near Precious Blood Cemetery where my grandmother planted her flag; he was at the bottom of the deep blue sea in the South Pacific.
I was thinking yesterday that the man was right who said there’s only 20 years between civilization and barbarism. As I trundled my mom’s wheelchair in that deserted green resting place, the two of us discussed what had happened here, why it was that only the occasional jalopy driven by an octogenarian arrived with a Produce Junction lily. These stalwart visitors are fading away and will soon be gone, and a new generation has arisen “who knew not Joseph,” as it were.
We never think that the casual laxness of a custom we ourselves are well-grounded in will mean the total extinction of the habit in the group just up behind us. We think we can revive it any time, when we are in the mood. But a tradition is passed as in a chain, and all it takes is one link in the chain to be broken for that tradition to be as if it never was. Henceforth, children will hear about the days their ancestors brought memorial flowers to gravesites, and will think it quaint, or will stifle a yawn.
But there is something more consequential, and that is the soldier himself, the future “Normans” of America. A soldier gives his life for his country and asks nothing in return except the unspoken bargain that we honor him for so doing. This is not vainglory but the natural order of things ordained by God. And think about this: God understands the motivational power on the sacrificer of the words “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:23), and this is why He says it, and holds it up our as a reward.
To die for one’s country is hard, but can be better borne with the acknowledgement of that sacrifice by the citizenry. Where honor is withheld, oh the double burden that the soldier bears.