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Memorial Day: A time to stand on holy ground

The following story appeared in the May 14 Idaho Catholic Register.

- Photo by Aaron Burden


Jay Wonacott

Marriage and Family Life Office


This year our nation celebrates Memorial Day on Monday, May 31. Traditionally known as the seasonal kickoff of the summer season, we celebrate Memorial Day to honor all those men and women who have died in service to our country. In doing a quick deep dive on the internet at the Library of Congress website, I discovered some interesting history on Memorial Day.


“In 1868, Commander in Chief John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic issued what was called General Order Number 11, designating May 30 as a Memorial Day. He declared it to be ‘for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land.’ ”


And this: “The first national celebration of Memorial Day (originally Decoration Day) took place May 30, 1868, at Arlington National Cemetery. The national observance of Memorial Day still takes place there today, with the placing of a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the decoration of each grave with a small American flag.”


As we pay tribute to those who have died in service to our country, culturally we have also extended this day of remembrance for all our loved ones who have died. As a child, I remember my father clipping roses and other flowers from our yard to take to the graves on Memorial Day. He would also pack up grass clippers, a large bucket of water and a scrub brush to take with us as we all got into the car to head to three different cemeteries to clean and decorate the graves of our deceased relatives.


I vividly remember my father’s loving act of service of trimming the grass around the gravestone and scrubbing them clean with the water and brush he had brought with him. We would say an “Our Father” and a “Hail Mary” as we placed the cut flowers on the freshly washed gravestones.


After the prayers were said, I remember always pausing for a moment of silence to remember the loved one whose burial place we were honoring. During the burial of a Catholic, the gravesite is blessed, so in a real way when visiting these graves, we stand on ‘holy ground’ as we honor those who have died.


In those silent moments of reflection as a young child, I pondered the meaning of life and death. I am grateful for my father’s example of visiting the graves of the dead and praying for them. On Memorial Day, we are reminded of the brevity of life and how precious each moment really is.


The Catholic Church teaches us: “The bodies of the dead must be treated with respect and charity, in faith and hope of the Resurrection. The burial of the dead is a corporal work of mercy; it honors the children of God, who are temples of the Holy Spirit.”


In an interesting way, our yearly trek to the gravesites was a continuation of this corporal work of mercy. With the same care we took to bury our loved ones, we annually remember them and respect them by cleaning and adorning their graves with flowers. The freshly picked flowers placed on their graves are symbols of the beauty and sweet smell of eternity. They are also a reminder to us that like the flowers, we are here for a brief time, and we, too, will fade and die.


As people of faith, however, we see the connectedness of the living with the dead. For those who have died in Christ, death is not an end to life, but a change. In the Preface for Christian Death the Church proclaims in our liturgy:


In him, who rose from the dead,

our hope of resurrection dawned.

The sadness of death gives way

to the bright promise of immortality.


Lord, for your faithful people life

is changed, not ended.

When the body of our earthly

dwelling lies in death we gain an everlasting

dwelling place in heaven.


The living and the dead are connected through the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ. When we pray and offer Masses for the dead, we connect with them in a special way. Those loved ones who are in Heaven, also celebrate with us in the Banquet of Heaven and Earth, which is the Mass.


Paragraph 958 of the Catechism states, “In full consciousness of this communion of the whole Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, the Church in its pilgrim members, from the very earliest days of the Christian religion, has honored with great respect the memory of the dead; and ‘because it is a holy and a wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from their sins, she offers her suffrages for them.’ Our prayer for them is capable not only of helping them, but also of making their intercession for us effective.”

My dad died 16 years ago. This year, as in years past, I will be picking some flowers from my yard, packing my grass clippers, a water bucket and a scrub brush and heading to the cemetery to reenact that loving act of care and honor for the dead that my father showed me years ago. In the course of time, I hope my children will do the same for me.


Happy Memorial Day!



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