“What about this one?” Finn asked, walking up to a faded gravestone. The weather had done its work on the old marker, and we could barely make out any of the writing.
“No,” I said. “It doesn’t look like it. I can’t see any signs of military rank on this one.”
We walked on.
Every year since they could walk I’ve taken the boys to a local cemetery on Memorial Day. This has happened even when we’re on vacation for the long weekend somewhere. I get little flags from the grocery store, and we make plans to “go for our cemetery walk,” as Finn calls it.
We look primarily for people who died in a war, as this day is intended to honor. Memorial Day used to be called Decoration Day, the day when everyone would come to the cemetery to mark the graves of those who died in war.
Today it seems like it’s mostly for buying goods like mattresses on sale and vacationing.
I’m not against those things, of course, I love a good bargain and rest. But, if we’re going to get the day off of work, we should probably use it as it was intended, right?
Sometimes we can’t find people who died in battle, though, and so we’re OK just putting the flag next to any grave of someone who served in a war. Here in North Carolina, that also means we put an American flag next to folks who fought in the CSA, indicating they fought with the Confederate States Army. Our oldest cemetery here in Raleigh, established in 1798, has a number of those.
There’s a little irony there, of course, marking the graves of those soldiers with the flag they didn’t fight under. But there’s also a lot of hope there, too. Having all my roots in the South I know what it’s like to not love that part of your heritage, and seek to redeem it somehow.
Perhaps we can help them do that in a small way on this side of the grave.
Plus, it’s a good opportunity to learn.
“The Civil War was when we fought against each other, right?” Alistair asks.
“Yes,” I say looking down. “Because,” Finn continued, “sometimes people disagree and then they can’t work past it and so they fight. And that’s bad.”
“It is,” I nod. “Some things are worth fighting for…but I hope that never happens again.”
“That’s when the slaves were freed, right?” Finn wonders.
“It is. People used to think some people could be used as slaves just because of how they looked, and that’s wrong and evil. We fought over that. Some people still think that way, which is also wrong and evil.”
“Martin Luther King worked hard so everyone can live together free,” Finn went on. We’ve been reading a lot about MLK lately.
“Yeah,” Alistair chimed in, “people used to not be able to be friends or eat together and he changed all that.”
“He worked hard to,” I said. “It’s crazy to think you couldn’t do that, right? We still have to work hard to make sure everyone is treated fairly.”
“Yeah, that makes no sense,” Finn said, elongating the ‘o’ on that ‘no.’
We find another grave, from World War I. Alistair plants a flag.
“Dad, who won in World War I?” Finn asked.
“Well, we won that war,” I said, “working with other countries.”
“And we won World War II, right?” he continued.
“We did. You great-grandpas fought in that war.”
“Wow, we won a lot!” he said.
“Well,” I hedged, “in war, even when you win it feels like it hurts. You’re glad it’s over, but it hurts.” I’m trying to be honest.
“Yeah,” Alistair said, “because people die, and that’s always bad.”
“Yeah,” Findley said, “which is why we put out flags, right?”
I patted his head, “Right buddy.”
We stumbled across a small marker. “Hey Dad, is this one?”
“No, buddy. That’s a grave for a baby. They were too young to be in a war.”
“Oh,” Finn said, “that’s really sad.” He knelt down by the grave and ran his finger along the simple moniker, ‘Infant Son.’ “How did the baby die?” he asked.
“I’m not sure, buddy. It doesn’t say. It just says that it didn’t live past a year. Sometimes that happens.”
“Are people under our feet?” Alistair asked.
“They are. Which is why we’re careful,” I said.
“Can they hear us?” Al asked.
“No,” Finn said, “when you’re dead you can’t hear anything.”
“Right,” I said.
“Everything dies,” Alistair offered truthfully. “Everything that lives, dies.”
“They do.” We walked on.
“It’s a pretty day to be here.”
He knelt by a grave and put a flag down next to the one we had stuck there last year, one of the few that survived.
“It is, buddy. You can learn a lot about life from a grave yard, right?”
He nodded, “It’s why we come here, right?”
But he didn’t bother to wait for my answer…he knew it, anyway, and they walked off together to find another person to honor.