Honoring the dead

Sunday, May 29, 2011

With Memorial Day weekend upon us, a few thoughts about respect for the dead.

William E. Gladstone, 19th-century British prime minister, is reputed to have said the following: "Show me the manner in which a nation cares for its dead, and I will measure with mathematical exactness, the tender mercies of its people, their loyalty to high ideals, and their regard for the laws of the land."

Memorial Day is a time to remember the fallen in all wars. Scouts will use the occasion to plant our national flag at graves. Family members will make cemetery visits to tend to a loved one's plot, to remember and to pray.

The Bible gives us considerable detail about how the body of Jesus was treated after his death. Taken down from the cross, placed in an above-ground grave donated by Joseph of Arimathea, Jews loyal to the Master got his body into the tomb before sundown Friday in strict observance of the Jewish Sabbath. On the Sunday following, three women came to prepare his body with spices, a gruesome yet loving task filled with honor and respect for the deceased. (Of course, the Gospels are unanimous in telling the reader there would be no body to anoint.)

Gladstone is right. You can tell a lot about a people by noticing how they care for the dead.

One of the vivid experiences of my life was a visit to the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany. When you arrive there, you are surprised to discover there are no docents at what is left of this infamous facility; you are shown an introductory film and make your way around the grounds at your own pace. A guest can view the ovens in which the dead were cremated.

For a while, the Nazis placed the cremains in ceramic pots for burial. However, so many were killed (an estimated 56,000 plus) that the camp ran out of pots, so the Nazis just started dumping cremains in the grass -- disposing of them the way you might throw out a cup of soda because it went bad in the refrigerator. The Nazis disgraced themselves by their contempt for the dead.

If you are looking for a Memorial Day fact-based film that depicts how this nation treats its war dead, try to find the 2009 HBO movie, "Taking Chance." In it, a Marine officer volunteers to escort the body of a 19-year-old enlisted man -- killed in Iraq -- back to his grieving Wyoming family. Let me warn you, the film has no special effects, no swearing, no bathroom humor and no sex. Still, you won't be able to take your eyes off the screen.

The motion picture meticulously shows the viewer, step by step, how a fallen Marine's body was handled as it made the long journey home. Tenderly, respectfully, even lovingly, Chance Phelps' body was prepared with utmost care. His personal effects were thoroughly washed and placed in a beautiful silk bag for delivery to his parents. Even though Phelps' body was not publicly viewed, his uniform was pressed with military precision. Nothing was left, if you pardon the pun, to chance.

At each step in Phelps' final journey, with his coffin put on and taken off commercial airplanes, strangers gathered to pay their respects -- civilians removing their caps, military folk offering crisp salutes.

Honor the fallen this weekend in whatever way makes sense to you. They deserve our respect. And when we give it, we give a strong witness about who we are as people.

The Rev. Dr. Jeff Long is senior pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Cape Girardeau. Married to his college sweetheart, he is the father of two teenaged daughters.

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