Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

Decoration Day — Sermon by the Rev. David Pyle

Last preached on May 30th, 2010


Reading General Order Number 11, Washington DC, May 5, 1868

                                        General John Logan

General Order

No. 11


Headquarters, Grand Army of the Republic

Washington, D.C., May 5, 1868


I. The 30th day of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land. In this observance no form or ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.


We are organized, comrades, as our regulations tell us, for the purpose, among other things, “of preserving and strengthening those kind and fraternal feelings which have bound together the soldiers, sailors, and marines who united to suppress the late rebellion.” What can aid more to assure this result than by cherishing tenderly the memory of our heroic dead, who made their breasts a barricade between our country and its foe? Their soldier lives were the reveille of freedom to a race in chains, and their death a tattoo of rebellious tyranny in arms. We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. All that the consecrated wealth and taste of the Nation can add to their adornment and security is but a fitting tribute to the memory of her slain defenders. Let no wanton foot tread rudely on such hallowed grounds. Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and found mourners. Let no vandalism of avarice or neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten, as a people, the cost of free and undivided republic.


If other eyes grow dull and other hands slack, and other hearts cold in the solemn trust, ours shall keep it well as long as the light and warmth of life remain in us.


Let us, then, at the time appointed, gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with choicest flowers of springtime; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved from dishonor; let us in this solemn presence renew our pledges to aid and assist those whom they have left among us as sacred charges upon the Nation’s gratitude,–the soldier’s and sailor’s widow and orphan.


II. It is the purpose of the Commander-in-Chief to inaugurate this observance with the hope it will be kept up from year to year, while a survivor of the war remains to honor the memory of his departed comrades. He earnestly desires the public press to call attention to this Order, and lend its friendly aid in bringing it to the notice of comrades in all parts of the country in time for simultaneous compliance therewith.


III. Department commanders will use every effort to make this order effective.


By command of:



Sermon What Happened to Decoration Day?

                                                       David Pyle


I thought I understood the meaning of Memorial Day.

I thought the uniform that hangs in my closet at home

taught me the meaning of Memorial Day.

I thought that growing up the child of a soldier,

and the grandchild of a sailor

taught me the meaning of memorial day.

But I was wrong.
I sensed the meaning of Memorial Day.

Last year, in this pulpit,

I preached a sermon about standing

at the Vietnam Wall with my father,

watching him trace names of friends across the wall.

It was the only time I ever saw tears in his eyes…

silent tears.

I saw my grandfather visit the punchbowl

WWII memorial in Hawaii,

and I saw those same silent tears.

I thought I knew the meaning of Memorial Day…

but I did not.

Not until an evening in 2006

when my wife came and told me that the television news

had just reported the death of my friend,

military partner, and former roommate

in the Al Anbar province of Iraq.

It was not until I realized that I too would one day

have a name to trace across a memorial somewhere,

the name of Captain Travis Patriquin.

Several other names have now joined his name for me.

It was also not until this year, when I,

as a hospice chaplain,

have been privileged to listen to the stories

of some of the last of the veterans of WWII.

To hear their memories of their comrades who died…

to be the person they entrust

their sacred memories of the war to.

To be the last person who they tell “how it was”,

and then to turn to their families

at their graveside services and present a flag,

on behalf of a grateful nation.

When I think of hell, I think of war.

It is a hell that exists in this time, in this world,

not in some metaphysical afterlife.

I wish with all my heart we could rid ourselves of it…

I wish for the day to come when we no longer send

our young men and women off to walk through that hell.

I wish for the day when our problems are solved

by meeting, not by killing.

It is rarely those who should be meeting

that instead are sent out to do and to face the killing.


I wish with all my heart for what military forces we have

to become a tool of peace, not a weapon of war.

But for years I could think of no way

to bring about that reality.

That is, until the death of my friend Travis

and listening to the stories of WWII veterans

taught me the true meaning of Memorial Day.

Clinton Lee Scott once said

“Always it is easier to pay homage to our prophets

than to heed the direction of their vision”.

The true meaning of Memorial Day is not homage…

it is not to honor those who have served,

those who have died for our nation.

Oh, that is what the media will tell us,

what the Vice-President will say

when he lays a wreath at Arlington National Cemetery tomorrow.


No, it is not honor that our war dead ask of us.

Honor is the easy way out

of the vision they call us to.


I hear from their prophetic voices two phrases…

“Never again”… and “Remember me”.

The true meaning of Memorial Day is to remember.

It is to remember that the cost of war

is almost always too high.

The true meaning of Memorial Day is not to honor our dead,

but to remember the price they paid.

To remember the price their families pay.

To remember the physical and psychic wounds

that the survivors of war, on all sides,

carry with them till the end of their days.

To remember the lives never lived.

To remember the horrors unleashed

upon civilian populations by the tools of modern warfare.

To remember the losses to our national image and innocence.

To remember the loss of possibility. To remember…

I want to cease thinking of Memorial Day

as if it were a Holiday. It is not.


I want to end the Memorial Day sales and the picnics,

the trips to the lake

and the hamburgers and hotdogs with stars and stripes napkins…

We should never Celebrate Memorial Day.

I want Memorial Day not to be a Holiday,

but a National Day of Mourning.

A National Day of Remembering…

“Never Again”… “Remember Me”.

It began as “Decoration Day”.

A day when soldiers, military families and friends

would go to cemeteries and place flowers and flags

upon the graves of those who had died in the Civil War.

It began not as a National Holiday,

but as a military exercise…

as a reminder to soldiers that

though the training for war can sometimes make it seem romantic,

the actuality of war is horrific.

Decoration Day reminded soldiers

and their families not only of the heavy cost of the Civil War,

but that it is not “play” that soldiers do.

That war always carries with it an immense cost.

This past summer,

I had picked out a day in late May to go to visit

the war memorials on the national mall in Washington, DC.

I was in DC working for the National Defense University

on a project on how to prepare soldiers

to survive combat stress during a deployment,

and my schedule was hectic.

I had picked this one particular Friday to go,

but when the Friday came, it was pouring down rain.

I did not know if I would find another opportunity to go,

and I almost gave up on going.


But something reminded me of that old Army phrase

“If it ain’t rainin, you ain’t trainin!”

So much of what those memorials call us to remember

happened in the rain.

So I grabbed a coat, and I went to the memorials to these past wars in the middle of a thunderstorm.

I do not think I ever want to visit those memorials

when it is not raining.

In the rain, there was a sense of solitude,

of me and these memorials not to the glory of war,

but to their cost.


There is nothing glorious about standing soaking wet

in a puddle of water in the pouring rain

in front of the Vietnam memorial.

In the rain, the Korean War Memorial

seems to come to life,

with the statues of soldiers wearing their rain poncho’s.

In the rain, the new WWII memorial

seems not to celebrate a victory,

but to draw all of that rain into its center pools…

like the life-blood of those who died.

In a really hard rain, you can barely even see

the memorial to WWI.


In the weeks that came after,

I spent my weekends walking the fields

of Arlington National Cemetery,

documenting as many of the grave markers

as I could find that carried not a cross, or a star,

but the Unitarian Universalist Chalice at the top.


I found almost 200 such markers,

not including all of the Unitarians and Universalists

who died in the Civil War fighting for the abolition of slavery.

Those markers had no religious insignia on them at all,

but we know that thousands of our faith fought in that war,

and whose graves would receive garlands

of fresh spring flowers on Decoration Day.


From those graves the veterans of the Civil War

heard and remembered the cost of war.

I want to return to that spirit,

so that the memory of the true costs of war

is fresh in our minds, renewed annually…

so that perhaps we can honor our dead

by sending no more to join them.

I want to return to the spirit of Decoration day…

so that we are annually reminded

that war is not glorious, but horrific.


On the 19th of June, in 1879,

General William Tecumseh Sherman,

who had led the Union Army on the infamous

“Sherman’s March” through the southern states,

was asked to address a class of students

at the Michigan Military Academy

on the anniversary of the day the Emancipation Proclamation

had first been read in the south.

The advice he had for them that day

is advice that we should all remember this day,

Memorial Day, Decoration day.  He said:


I’ve been where you are now and I know just how you feel. It’s entirely natural that there should beat in the breast of every one of you a hope and desire that some day you can use the skill you have acquired here.

Suppress it! You don’t know the horrible aspects of war. I’ve been through two wars and I know. I’ve seen cities and homes in ashes. I’ve seen thousands of men lying on the ground, their dead faces looking up at the skies. I tell you, war is Hell!”


One of the interesting things about being

a Unitarian Universalist Minister who is also a military veteran

and in process to become a military chaplain

is that twice annually, I have ministerial colleagues

from across the country

write me for advice in writing their sermons

for Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day.

Each year, I have a few phone conversations

with these colleagues,

trade emails with a few more colleagues,

and receive a few notifications from others

that they plan on quoting me from their pulpits

on these particular Sunday mornings.

I cherish that my colleagues think enough of me

to ask me for advice on these days,

and yet I have always wondered

why there is such fear about preaching

the truth of Liberal Faith on these particular Sunday mornings…


What has puzzled me is why my colleagues

are so concerned about these two Sundays?

Why do they seem to feel the need to “check”

what they are called from our shared prophetic faith

to say about these two Sundays?

From my perspective, there are few days in our calendar

that need the message of liberal faith

to be proclaimed more loudly than

on Veteran’s day and Memorial Day.


These are two days were we are called to remember

that there is a cost to war

that goes beyond the dollars and cents of congressional budgets.


This cost is paid out in the lives of families,

in the lives of service members,

and indeed in the life of our nation.

Each of these wars has transformed our nation forever.

We were not the same country after the Civil War as before,

after WWII as before, after Vietnam as before.

We will never again be the nation we were before

we invaded Iraq and Afghanistan.


Memorial Day is not just about

remembering the losses in lives,

but the losses of who we were as a nation,

who we could have been.

It is a day to remind ourselves that the costs of war

are much larger, much more profound,

and much more lasting than even the lines of graves

and the lines on a budget.

In each war that we humans fight

we have mortgaged a little bit of our humanity,

we have transformed others into being less than human,

and we have asked some of our young men and women

to walk through an inhuman hell on our behalf.


Somehow, picnics and barbeques, days at the beach,

and early summer sales do not seem to hold us

to account for all that we unleash upon this world

and ourselves when we as a nation choose to engage in war.

If anything, the way we have come

to “celebrate” Memorial Day seems designed

to make us forget, to minimize the costs of war

in the eyes of society.


We see a few veterans standing in business suits

and VFW hats and think

“See, it really was not so bad…

what a great day to go to the beach”.

We watch as some politicians lay a few flowers

upon a few graves on our televisions,

and then we enjoy a day off.


It was not so for those early soldiers and their families,

who went to the cemeteries on Decoration Day.

They went there to remember, not just the fallen,

but to remember how frightened they were.

They went there to remember the smell of canon-fire,

and to remind themselves what General Sherman

tried to tell those young cadets on Juneteenth…

that War is Hell.


Our nation is again divided,

politically if not geographically.

Perhaps there has never been a time when we were not divided,

but it just feels different to me now.


People are walking along the National Mall in DC

carrying signs that declare

that they did not bring their guns to the protest, this time…

implying a threat of another violent insurrection,

another Civil War.

Politicians are inflaming this kind of rhetoric for political gain.

Others are advocating the use of military force

to prevent undocumented immigrants

from coming to our country looking for work,

rather than doing the hard work of enforcing the laws we have

upon those who employ the undocumented.

Still others are calling for an expansion

of the use of military force in Afghanistan,

and an extension of that force into Pakistan.

Some are still calling for the use of military force

in Iran, in Korea, and in Northern Africa.


We need an annual day of mourning,

of reminding ourselves of the cost of war.

We need an annual day where we all go to the cemeteries,

where we go to the graves of our ancestors

who we sent to fight and die in war,

and lay flowers of atonement upon those graves.

We need a day, at least a day,

where we listen, truly listen to those like General Sherman who,

having seen war, come back to rid us of our illusions

as to its romance and its honor.

We need a day, at least a day,

every year where we are confronted with the losses of our hopes,

our dreams as a nation that have occurred because of war.

We desperately need such a day.


We need to return to Decoration Day.

We need to step away from Memorial Day

and return to Decoration Day.

Perhaps tomorrow, before going to the beach or to a barbecue,

to a sale or to go sailing…

perhaps we need to begin our morning tomorrow in a cemetery.


Almost any cemetery will do,

those who died in our many wars

can be found in them all.

Perhaps we need to each take a bouquet of wildflowers

and spend an hour, just an hour,

walking through a local cemetery,

laying a flower at the base of every headstone

of a veteran that we see… and remember the cost.


Perhaps then, and only then,

can we hear our dead saying these words to us…

Never again…. Remember me.


Leave a Reply

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: