When you think of Memorial Day weekend, what comes to mind? No doubt the true meaning of the holiday is (should be?) where it all began: the fact that so many have given their lives to assure and ensure that you and I can live our lives in freedom.
If you are sensitive to the true meaning of the holiday, a tear may be forming in the corner of your eye as you consider what those fallen heroes have sacrificed for you. Memorial Day is replete with parades, patriotic singing, bagpipes, bugles playing taps, flags being raised and lowered to half-staff, and prayers honoring those who have given their lives that we might live. Out of all the national holidays we celebrate, Memorial Day is perhaps the saddest, yet the most awe-inspiring of them all.
But over the years Memorial Day has become more than that. It is for all intents and purposes the traditional beginning of the summer holiday season. For most, school is out and summer vacations are beginning. On this day, many get together for family and/or neighborhood gatherings, cookouts, homemade ice cream, and so on.
Some time ago I shared a story about the good people of Lake City, Colorado, and how they celebrate Memorial Day as a community. Yes, they celebrate with all of the trappings mentioned above, but they take their holiday festivities a step further than most of us by staging — a coffin race!
I am not making this up. On the Saturday before Memorial Day every year, they do it again, rigging up caskets on wheels and whizzing down the town’s main street. Looks sort of like a soapbox derby, only sponsored by the local morgue.
The winner several years back was a man named Mike Doty, who created a cadaver crate with lawnmower wheels. After crossing the finish line, the 5-6.5, 275-pound champ chalked up his victory to “my great physical shape.”
The coffin race is one of a handful of activities remembering Alfred Packer, who in 1874 took five gold prospectors into the mountains near Lake City, where they were trapped by a snowstorm. They ran out of rations, but Alfred found an alternative, albeit grisly, food source — his gold-digging companions.
Today, posters around town proclaim the event: Commemorating Lake City’s Infamous Man-Eater! (The posters also pitch the Tubby Carl Memorial Showmanship Award, whatever that is.)
Other activities include a skeleton-assembly contest and the annual Alfred Packer Barbecue Cookoff, with $700 in prize money.
There’s also a flea market and plenty of food, including one entrepreneur selling “manburgers” — hamburgers shaped like little men. And then there’s the big dance at the town armory on Saturday night.
Sounds like a blast.
Don’t know about you, but I’m just dying to go.
But let me ask the question: What did you do for Memorial Day weekend?
As I consider what this holiday truly has meant for me, I am reminded of three individuals who were friends of mine who are no longer with us because they sacrificed their lives in battle. One of them was missing in action for over 40 years before his remains were finally discovered and identified. I think also of another friend who is still alive, but who spent seven and a half years in solitary confinement in a place not-so-fondly referred to as the Hanoi Hilton. It is my humble opinion that this holiday is one that should call each of us to reflect and honor the price paid by so many to help us experience the freedoms that we do, indeed, oftentimes take so much for granted.
One time in the midst of the intense battles and fighting of the Civil War, one of his advisors made an offhand comment to President Abraham Lincoln, saying, “I sure hope God is on our side in this war.” Lincoln curtly responded by saying, “Rather, sir, I sure hope that we are on God’s side!”
One of our major issues in celebrating the sacrifices of so many for our freedoms is our concern that they have not died in vain, and that the freedoms for which they have so valiantly given their lives are worth it. Does God approve? Is that not the question?
In “Either Way, I Win: God’s Hope for Difficult Times”, Lois Walfrid Johnson writes about visiting Oklahoma City, a city that was changed forever by the terrorist bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, which killed 168 people: “In the national memorial building on the Murrah Building site, 168 empty chairs are placed in the location where each person sat when he or she died. Beyond that memorial and across another street is a statue constructed by St. Joseph’s Catholic Church. The statue’s powerful image represents a tall, white-robed Christ. He stands with his back to the busy street and the place where the federal building once stood. The representation of Christ faces a brick wall in which there are 168 empty spaces, one space for each person who died. With bowed head Jesus faces that symbol of loss, covers his face with one hand, and weeps.”
No matter what we go through, whether it be the loss of a loved one in war, the rebellion of a child, or some other loss, it is a tremendous comfort to know that as followers of Jesus Christ, we are not going through our pain alone. As Johnson concludes, “In whatever suffering we know, in whatever Why, God? we ask, we cannot forget one important truth: Jesus Christ weeps with us.”
Memorials exist to cause us to remember what our forefathers have gone through so that we could express and experience what we go through now. But we are not alone, and that is a tremendous comfort!
Chuck Tabor is a religion columnist for The Times-Gazette and a former Hillsboro area pastor. He can be reached at [email protected]