Memorial Day, Past and Present
By Nancy Arbuthnot
Eternal Father, strong to save,
Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
Who bidd'st the mighty ocean deep
Its own appointed limits keep;
Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea!
In church on Sunday, in commemoration of Memorial Day, we sang “Eternal Father, Strong to Save.” The original words were composed in 1860 by British Anglican clergyman William Whiting who, having survived a storm at sea, was likely inspired by Psalm 107:
Some went out on the sea in ships; they were merchants on the mighty waters.
They saw the works of the Lord, his wonderful deeds in the deep.
For he spoke and stirred up a tempest that lifted high the waves.
They mounted up to the heavens and went down to the depths;
in their peril their courage melted away. (Verses 23–26)
By the 1870s, the Royal Navy had adapted the poem as a hymn, and in 1879, after a navigation instructor and director of the Midshipman Choir at the United States Naval Academy ended Sunday services with “Eternal Father,” the hymn was adopted by the U.S. armed services. Now it is often sung at military funerals. As a professor at the Naval Academy and also the daughter of a WWII veteran and career naval officer, I have attended several such funerals. Today I thought about those friends of my father and my former students and colleagues who died in service to their country. Today I also pictured myself at my father’s funeral—it’s something that I strangely find myself doing sometimes, though he’s still alive at 95, incapacitated by a major stroke but hanging on, I think, to remain with my mother, his wife of 70 years—tears streaming from my eyes, voice choking as I cry out the last lines.
Just a couple of days ago, I was hungrily anticipating this three-day weekend that typically kicks off summer in the United States, thankful for the extra day that would give my husband and me more hours to complete our long-delayed planting of annuals and perennials, hanging up of paintings still propped up against the wall repainted after last spring’s kitchen fire, and maybe even completing our 2016 taxes. I was also looking forward to a Monday cookout with friends. It wasn’t until Saturday afternoon, when I stopped by my parents’ house for a quick visit between errands, that I actually remembered the true meaning of Memorial Day. Memorial Day traces its roots to Decoration Day, officially established on May 30, 1868 in recognition of those who lost their lives in the Civil War, and a time for decorating the graves of the war dead with flowers. The first large Decoration Day ceremony was held at Arlington National Cemetery that year, and continued to be celebrated at local events until after World War I, when the commemoration was expanded to honor those who died in all American wars. In 1971, Congress declared Memorial Day a national holiday, to be celebrated the last Monday in May. In 2000, Congress passed "The National Remembrance Act" to encourage Americans to pause at 3 p.m. on Memorial Day for a moment of silent remembrance of the men and women who have died for their country.
So after church on Sunday, instead of our usual Sunday walk around East Potomac Park, my husband and I walked along the Potomac and across Memorial Bridge to Arlington National Cemetery. The bridge rumbled with the loud engines of the Rolling Thunder motorcycles. It started to rain. But by now we were committed. At the cemetery, heading for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, we wound up roads alongside green hills covered with row after row after row of rounded white gravestones, each decorated with a small American flag. Despite the crowds, all was quiet except for the soft thud of footsteps. At the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, it was even quieter, the mood solemn and respectful. The guard paced slowly back and forth across the front of the raised tomb. After a few minutes, the changing of the guards was announced, and the guard on duty approached from one side of the tomb, and met his relief, approaching from the other side, directly in front of the tomb. After the first guard turned and marched off, the crowd dispersed. We left too, headed towards the Eternal Flame and the grave of John F. Kennedy, whose 100th birthday we also celebrate today. A semi-circular wall of granite from Kennedy’s native New England half-surrounds the modest burial marker.
Engraved on the wall are lines from his speeches, including these:
LET EVERY NATION KNOW
WHETHER IT WISHES US WELL OR ILL
THAT WE SHALL PAY ANY PRICE – BEAR ANY BURDEN
MEET ANY HARDSHIP – SUPPORT ANY FRIEND
OPPOSE ANY FOE TO ASSURE THE SURVIVAL
AND THE SUCCESS OF LIBERTY
As we lingered at the gravesite, we heard a mockingbird trill a long, ever- changing melody from somewhere in the branches of a large ornamental tree dropping its last blossoms on the stone.
Filled by these inspiring words with a renewed hope for our democracy, my husband and I headed back home in the late afternoon. In my head was the military bugle call played at dusk and at military funerals, the sound that lingered deep into my childhood evenings on California naval bases and echoed down the steps of the Naval Academy Chapel and across the Yard and, on other occasions, across the green hills of Arlington National Cemetery. Although there are no official words to the thirty-four notes of “Taps,” whenever I hear the tune, with my actual, “sensual “ear or in imagination, I unfailingly combine each note with the familiar (though unofficial) and comforting words I learned long ago:
Day is done,
gone the sun,
From the hills,
from the lake,
From the skies.
All is well,
God is nigh.
But the trumpet’s words that I want to end with are the words of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes that I just discovered. In an address on Memorial Day in 1884, Holmes asks that we hear the trumpet’s sound not only as a funeral dirge but also as offering “notes of daring, hope and will,” and that we consider how our dead “still live for us, and bid us think” not of death only but of “the great chorus of life and joy.” This Memorial Day, then, may we remember and honor our dead, but also sing of life.