With Memorial Day upon us, our American culture prompts us toward thoughts of the heroic dead.
So why, then, do we “celebrate” Memorial Day with parades and barbecues when we should be praying?
American national and community memorial rituals extend as far back as ancient Athens.
Reason and Religion in Socratic Philosophy tells us that ancient Athens held an annual autumn festival to honor their dead. It was called the Genésia.
The Genésia originated as a private, family festival in honor of dead ancestors, but it grew into a public festival.
On that day, families visited the graves of their relatives and left flowers and small gifts. Some honored their ancestors by holding private ceremonies in their homes.
In addition, there were the national heroes.
Ancient Greek heroes included not only warriors valiant in battle, but also philosophers esteemed in the arena of thought.
Everybody knows Socrates was put to death by the state because he was teaching what were considered heretical ideas.
But few know that after his death, Socrates became a “hero” in the religious sense—a mortal honored in annual rites by the same state that had ordered his execution.
Historians tell us that this kind of hero worship was aimed at legitimizing the authority of the city-states that made up ancient Greece. Venerating their heroes created a sense of solidarity among the citizens. The political leaders of the city-states identified themselves with the glory of the heroes.
Think of this on Memorial Day when you see our president, like others before him, reverently place a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in our national cemetery, Arlington.
And think of what William Carlos Williams wrote in his poem, Dedication for a Plot of Ground:
If you can bring nothing to this place
but your carcass, keep out.
On the other hand, my Ukrainian church, like other eastern Catholic and Orthodox churches, marks Memorial Day with graveside devotional services for the departed. All of them.
We spend much of Memorial Day at the cemetery, with the priest leading a brief prayer service at each grave. This ancient ritual is known as Panaxyda, from the Greek word for requiem.
This is why, on Memorial Day, I feel a need, rooted in my Slavic heritage, to offer in my wife’s memory the poetic refrain of the Panaxyda:
To the soul of your servant who has fallen asleep, O Lord, grant rest in a place of light, a place of verdure, and a place of tranquility, from which pain, sorrow and mourning have fled.
If you enjoyed reading this, you will like my newest book, Saints and Poets, Maybe: One Hundred Wanderings, available at: Amazon