“For heroes have the whole earth for their tomb…”

Today is Memorial Day in the US, a federal holiday to commemorate our military dead…specifically, those who died in service.  Across the nation there are public parades and speeches as well as countless personal remembrances for loved ones lost.   Despite how I might feel about the validity of any particular war, I would never dispute the sacrifices that have been made by tens of thousands of military members and their families.  Formal state remembrances of the supreme sacrifice of military members are not unique to the modern world – unfortunately, humankind has a long, long history of warfare.  Perhaps one of the most famously recorded episodes of commemoration of the fallen comes from The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides.  In PericlesFuneral Oration, to the Athenians who had died in the initial battles of the war, Thucydides shows the Athenian leader lifting up the state as much as the deceased, and in many ways, that seems to be the function of all such ceremonies…to remind us why we ask such a sacrifice.  As I read through it today, I was struck by a passage which spoke specifically to me about honoring the individual, separate from the state.

funeral oration

“For heroes have the whole earth for their tomb”

I know that Memorial Day is separate from Veterans Day – where we in the US honor all who have served, but I tend to think that they are pieces of the same puzzle, and in that I remember all of the members of my own family, my Dad and my uncles and great uncles who served in wartime, my cousins who served in peace time.  I remember my students who served only recently, some of them seeking education now in times between deployments.  I especially remember my friend Rick,  who was so damaged by what he had seen and been required to do in Iraq that he couldn’t come to grips with it and took his own life, leaving behind two young sons who had never really known their father because of his service to the state.  Even though these people and thousands like them did not perish in service, their lives, and those of their families have been forever altered by it and they deserve to be recognized as often as possible – somehow I don’t think their departed comrades would mind.

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20 comments on ““For heroes have the whole earth for their tomb…”

  1. guylty says:

    I feel a bit bad about my relentless joking elsewhere today, in light of the sombre day that is in it for you in the US. Thanks for a little reminder.

    • obscura says:

      No worries! Memorial Day for an enormous number (myself included) is as much about kicking off summer as remembering the fallen…if only we could be a bit better at multi tasking, we could do both at the same time 🙂

    • obscura says:

      I was trying to figure out how to put them both into one post, and couldn’t manage it…and I had such a great picture of the guacamole I made too!

    • Servetus says:

      There should be more joking … not about Memorial Day specifically. (And I was feeling unusually resentful, even for me, this year.) But if people spent more time thinking about sausage than they did about war … (paraphrasing Thorin’s death speech to Bilbo) …

  2. Leigh says:

    Because I personally have an allergy to parades and public displays, because as a child I was asked to mourn people I never knew, I don’t keep Memorial Day as some think it should be kept. Instead I think of those who fought for what they believed was right, who paid until their deaths even if they did not die on the battlefield. I fervently hope for peace, for those who have passed and for those who remain. The toast is, “Absent friends.”

    • obscura says:

      I don’t know that there is a correct way to deal with the magnitude of carnage over generations. I tend to think that every service man or woman gives irrevocably gives up a piece of themselves to military service. That is a lovely toast! It is usually a reminder to us to tend to the graves of our departed, military or not…it’s very common around here to see a riot of newly placed flowers at this time of year in cemeteries. (I have that same allergy to parades!)

      • Leigh says:

        I tend memories rather than graves, trying to honour those for whom there was no recognition and no recompense, but who nonetheless gave what they had. They were not people who were always admirable, but they did serve and fight when they were called. They are owed much, at the very least remembrance. These are some names: John, RAF; Jack, Special Services; Jeanne, Military Intelligence; Jesse, U.S. Army; Eric, USMC; Frank, USN. While I live, they are remembered.

        • obscura says:

          There is another passage from the same speech that touches in part on what you said…

          “For there is justice in the claim that steadfastness in his country’s battles should be as a cloak to cover a man’s other imperfections; since the good action has blotted out the bad, and his merit as a citizen more than outweighed his demerits as an individual.”

          Remembrance is a good thing in this case.

  3. katie70 says:

    Thank you for writing this post. I have hard time listening to Taps, I tend to cry since my grandpa (a older WWII vet, when off to war at age 37, with a pregnant wife and 2 children ages 10 & 7 at home) funeral in 1985.

  4. Servetus says:

    Thanks for bringing it back to Thucydides … if only the U.S. were Athens. (Although, as Th himself points out, Athens is in itself plagued and finally destroyed by its consistent inability to live up to its own values.) I’d better not say anything else about that. But I love this speech, too, and its values as much in their breach as in their realization: “And it is only the Athenians, who, fearless of consequences, confer their benefits not from calculations of expediency, but in the confidence of liberality.”

    I agree that those who die of wounds, even the self-inflicted, shortly or distantly after the fact, also died for these causes.

    • obscura says:

      It’s really hard not to be cynical when you’ve studied the past and seen the utter futility of thousands of years of warfare that has usually only served to replace one flawed regime with another. Even so, I still honor those who’ve served when it was asked of them.

      • Servetus says:

        I have been grateful many times in my life that often it’s enough to be somewhere, stand up, and look serious when one’s asked to and that no one can read my mind. It’s not that I don’t honor or value their sacrifices. It’s that I wish there were no need to have made them.

        • obscura says:

          Yep, I totally hear that. I’m not a complete peacenik, I realize that since humans have lived in spitting distance of one another, there’s been conflict, but where does it end is the question. Hope…that’s what’s left in Pandora’s box.

          • Servetus says:

            I am, increasingly, a complete peacenik. Oddly enough, it wasn’t Vietnam that pushed me there. But the stronger my conviction grows, the more I clench my jaw 🙂

          • obscura says:

            Yeah, the way things are going, you should probably invest in a mouth guard….or TMJ insurance 😉

  5. katie70 says:

    It is very hard to hide the crying while on military parade. My 14 year old son plays Taps on his trumpet, other than him practicing in his room I have never heard him play.

    • obscura says:

      I will admit to not always being the most patriotic person around, but there is something really haunting about that piece, I guess that’s the point of it…

  6. obscura says:

    Reblogged this on Ancient Armitage and commented:

    I wanted to mark the day, but I’m just not up to cogent thoughts…here’s a reboot from the archives though…

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