Father Constantine Lazarakis of the Greek Orthodox Congregation, and Jewish Center of the Hamptons Rabbi Josh Franklin discuss the true, somber meaning of Memorial Day, beyond the summer kickoff.
Rabbi Josh Franklin
As we commemorate Memorial Day this weekend, I’ll be placing stones at the foot of memorials that mark fallen soldiers. Jewish tradition designates the stone as the symbol of our memories for the dead. Some religious traditions place flowers, but Jews place stones, because stones are a metaphor for the permanence of memory. The stone reminds us that something will endure long after our corporeal selves are gone.
The origin of placing stones on a grave may have originated as a way to keep animals from digging up a grave, or more superstitiously, to make sure that the buried don’t come back as malevolent spirits. But really, we’ve been placing stones for so long, that we don’t remember exactly where the custom originated, or why it was done.
But this I do know: The stones are alive, and they speak to us if we listen to them. A famous Israeli song called “Kotel” describes these living stones: “There are people with hearts of stone, and there are stones with the hearts of people.” We need only stop and listen to the words our stones speak to us. We become custodians of these stones, and the memories we place within each and every one of them.
Isaac Bashevis Singer, the great American-Jewish writer, though Polish born, writes of our eternal memories for the dead: “The dead don’t go anywhere. They’re all here. Each man is a cemetery. An actual cemetery, in which lie all our grandmothers and grandfathers, the father and mother, the wife, the child. Everyone is here all the time.” So too it is with our fallen soldiers; their sacrifices live within each and every one of us, and we place stones for them as reminders that their legacies will endure.
Father Constantine Lazarakis
Every Memorial Day, I ponder the juxtaposition of a holiday dedicated to the memory of our fallen soldiers (a somber commemoration, no doubt) and the unofficial start of summer — the hot dogs and swimming pools, the backyard parties and beach barbecues. For Orthodox Christians, the commemoration of the dead is regulated by tradition.
We offer memorial prayers at regular intervals: at 40 days after a loved one’s passing, again at a year, and annually after that. I am often heartbroken to hear these traditions misunderstood as a morbid fixation with death, or a sadistic insistence on revisiting grief. When understood properly, remembering the dead is an act of gratitude for the love they offered to us, a chance to honor their name, a prompting to cherish that which we tend to take for granted. In this light, Memorial Day, and the act of remembering the dead in general, are indeed a time for celebration.
This Memorial Day weekend, if we can have the presence of mind to do two things, our celebration will take on a depth beyond beer in the backyard, and bring joy greater than the passing pleasure of another party.
1. Let’s allow ourselves to remember those who have gone before us, and who have given their lives to enrich our own. Let us feel the gravity of sacrifice and sorrow of loss.
2. Let us offer gratitude, thanking God for the blessings He has bestowed. Let’s feel and express gratitude for those who gave their lives to establish and defend our nation. Let’s express thanks to those departed loved ones, parents, grandparents and friends who have made us who we are.
The somber nature of commemorating the fallen is not incompatible with the celebratory customs of Memorial Day weekend. But if we can remember to commemorate the dead, it can bring meaning and true joy to our celebration.
Father Constantine Lazarakis and Rabbi Josh Franklin will be co-teaching a class that will be open to the public this summer, True Love: An Interfaith Exploration of Relational Love. Details will be available soon.
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