Longing for Nostalgia

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Why We Place Flowers on War Heroes' Graves

Honoring heroes represents a struggle to bridge the abstract and the concrete.

Remembering those who died in battle has been a tradition since ancient times. Although the specific rituals differ, the act of paying tribute cuts across culture and historical context.  History reveals that the American custom of honoring fallen veterans on Memorial Day was born out of intense grief for the overwhelmingly losses of the Civil War. Three years after the end of the Civil War, Decoration Day was officially declared an occasion to decorate the graves of those who had died in battle, and the first national observance was held on May 30, 1868 at Arlington National Cemetery.  However, local tributes had already begun at the end of the war. For example, in April 1866 in Columbus, Mississippi, a group of women decorating the graves of Confederate soldiers compassionately placed flowers on the neglected graves of Union soldiers as well.

The establishment of official remembrance suggests that tributes to fallen heroes serve to enhance patriotism and national pride, especially in the time of conflict. The collective acts of honoring the ultimate military sacrifice also reflect an essential psychological dynamic. By keeping someone alive in memory, honoring a loved one helps us feel connected despite the undeniable separation by death. Ceremonies to honor fallen military serve the same purpose for those who mourn the death of one they had known and loved. But what function do they serve for those who did not know the fallen heroes? 

Remembrance of those we had never known cannot be driven by the same psychological needs that spur remembrance of our loved ones. It springs from a recognition that the ultimate sacrifice must be remembered; otherwise, we are failing to accept the responsibility for those deaths that comes from being a member of the community that participated in war. Honoring heroes represents a struggle to bridge the abstract and the concrete. Knowing that the loss of life secured freedom, unity, and a cherished way of life is an intellectualization. Absent of critical emotion, ideas can be used in the service of conflicting ambitions.  Placing a flag or flowers on an individual grave helps make the act more personal, and the fallen becomes more a person than simply an abstract casualty of war. Knowing that James Holmes Watson, killed at the battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862, had been born in 1838, that Stephen P. Snowberger III, killed May 11, 2006 in Iraq, had been born September 4, 1987, and that Eric L. Ward, killed February 21, 2010, had been born August 17, 1990 reminds us that these soldiers had been someone’s babies, someone’s sons. And they had been robbed of full lives, having been struck down in their youth.

Thinking of the fallen as individuals engages us in understanding the enormity of what is lost when a soldier dies. Inspired by experiences in World War I, poet Wilfrid Wilson Gibson wrote in 1918:  “We who are left, how shall we look again happily on the sun or feel the rain without remembering how they who went ungrudgingly and spent their lives for us loved, too, the sun and rain?”  Considering the life of a young person killed in war can stir the sense of obligation that comes with grief and the guilt of a price paid for us by someone who didn’t even know us. We cannot repay that price. The price is far too great.  How, then, can we enjoy the sunshine of a Memorial Day picnic or family reunion? 

Paying tribute acknowledges our debt, but more importantly, it invites us to experience the abstract loss in concrete personal terms. Remembering that each hero had been someone’s child who had grown with the hope for a life of meaning and purpose gives us the opportunity to fulfill some of that purpose. Remembering keeps us focused on what is important enough to be willing to die for.

Flowers became flags, and prayers became speeches. A day of remembrance evolved into a long weekend holiday for picnics, parades, and parties. Heroes died to ensure our freedom to celebrate. Our joy is all the more meaningful when tinged with the memory of those who would have loved to celebrate with us.

Further Reading:

Batcho, K. I.  (October 2, 2013).  In Memory Of . . .  Psychology Todayhttp://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/longing-nostalgia/201310/in-memory

Batcho, K. I.  (February 7, 2012).  Teaching the Heart of Science.  Psychology Todayhttp://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/longing-nostalgia/201202/teaching-the-heart-science

Center for Civil War Research.  Memorial Day.  Civil War Memory.  University of Mississippi.   http://www.civilwarcenter.olemiss.edu/memorial_day.shtml

Gibson, W. W.  (1918).  A lament.  All Poetry. http://allpoetry.com/poem/8515049-A-Lament-by-Wilfrid-Wilson-Gibson 

Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs.  Memorial Day History.  U.S. Department of Veterans Affairshttp://www.va.gov/opa/speceven/memday/history.asp?utm_source=3birds&utm_medium=Web&utm_campaign=AUBURNVW_Fun+Facts+About+Memorial+Day

Krystine Batcho, Ph.D., is a professor at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York.

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