As I went out to place flags in my front yard on Memorial Day morning my thoughts turned to the dead, as they always do on that day, but more overarchingly to cemeteries.
Those of us of a certain age remember when Memorial Day was called Decoration Day by our elders and always occurred on May 30, as a day to "decorate" the graves. Now that Americans have a sacrosanct, constitutionally unalienable right to a three-day weekend, the Memorial Day observance date is flexible.
But whenever we observe it, the day should bring our minds pre-eminently to the dead, instead of to the day the swimming pools open or whose turn it is to bring the keg. Which led my thoughts to cemeteries.
Every cemetery I have visited, from the one where my parents are interred all the way to Arlington National, has impressed me with its quiet, its peace, its solemnity, its reverence. When I'm there, I find that I converse in subdued, rather hushed tones. Cemetery comes from the Greek for "sleeping place," and it is a fitting descriptor. Row after row of those who have gone before quietly rest below our feet.
Prayer comes easily in that contemplative place. And the memories. On Monday I visited my parents' graves, which share a single, large headstone, and my thoughts of them were all gentle. I imagine it's that way for most everybody.
It's not that I mentally canonize them, for let's face it, they were flawed humans, as we all are. But standing at their graves I can only think of the nice times, the sweet times, and what I owe them. Sometimes I have my children with me. Normally, I always call them my kids, but when calling to mind cemeteries I cannot write "kids" -- too flippant; they are my children, and if not for my folks, none of us would be drawing breath.
It's quiet, it's peaceful, the tone properly respectful. Even when I was an altar boy of 9, accompanying the priest to the graveside, I was struck by that. Even the grieving family members were somehow more reserved than they were in church.
My folks are buried on a beautiful bluff above McKees Rocks and Stowe, at St. Mary Help of Christians Cemetery. It's the parish where they were members the longest.
Surrounding them on the hillside are other headstones that make me briefly contemplate the lives of those who died during the Depression or at the beginning of the 20th century, or even earlier. What was life like for them?
Close to my folks is the sad marker of a little girl who did not get her full complement of years, having graced us with her innocence only from 1981 to 1988. Another marker recalls a priest who died at 42 and is buried next to his mother. Another young man buried nearby passed away in 1889, 125 years ago. What was the gathering like then on this spot? How did his loved ones get here, high on this hill overlooking a beautiful valley?
I bring a flag to my father's grave to honor his service. He volunteered to be shipped thousands of miles from home to fight and suffer on Guadalcanal and other islands. But I see that flags are already fluttering all through this cemetery, one at the grave of each vet. I install mine next to that one.
I wonder how many of those veterans served peacefully, how many saw combat and carried those scars with them until the end like my Dad, and how many died in a conflict, giving, as Lincoln so beautifully phrased it, "the last, full measure of devotion."
Unless we've made other arrangements, this is our final resting place, our "sleeping place." And it is altogether fitting that while visiting we act as if we do not want to disturb their sleep.
The Bard wrote "what's past is prologue," and I cannot help but wonder when my turn will come. When my children will be able to visit me only at this place of solemnity and share quiet stories and memories about ol' Dad.
The church has a phrase, requiescant in pace. May they rest in peace. Just so.
James F. Cataldi of Moon, a retired dentist, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org