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A Meditation on Remembrance Day

Not many people realize it, but the observations some of us maintain every November 11th have a powerful resonance with some of the deepest questions humanity wrestles with. Our annual ritual involves a highly symbolic set of gestures and customs – some of which are thousands of years old.

At its essence, the simple Remembrance Day ceremony is a highly charged event. Knowing this should make it even more important.

It is a central part of the Human condition to wonder about what comes next when we finish the brief span of our lives. Does some part of us linger? Can we still connect with what we loved best? Will we remember? We don’t know the answers to this one great mystery – but in life we harbour our hopes, suspicions and ideas about what awaits after death.

Almost all human beings believe (at some level) that something of us remains, and we see the graves and tombs of those who have gone before us as a way of remembering and staying in touch with some element of our dead. It is also almost equally universal for humans to believe that lives ended violently are less likely to settle into whatever comes next as peacefully as those who lived a whole span.

For those who deliberately offered themselves to violence or sudden death, particularly to protect others, our need to assure ourselves (and the dead) seems even stronger. Homer, almost 3,000 years ago, praised those who put their bodies between their homes and families “and the war’s desolation”.

It was the Greeks who also gave us the idea of the cenotaph (literally, ‘empty tomb’), so that those who fell far from home or at sea could have a symbolic resting place at home where friends and families could honour them. Over 2,400 years ago Pericles, in his famous Funeral Oration to the Athenians , argued that a cenotaph is a more honourable grave than most others – they contain a purity of spirit and no physical corruption of the remains.

Stunned by the toll of the First World War, many Canadian cities erected cenotaphs in the years after the war. Erroneously called ‘War Memorials’, these are the empty tombs for the 109,700 Canadian war dead garnered since the Boer War. It is where we go to honour these dead and hope – at some subconscious level – that they realize it.

The ceremony of Remembrance as practiced in Canada and throughout the old British Empire is a symbolic set of rituals assembled together – seemingly almost unconsciously—in the aftermath of the First World War. These are the sounding of the “Last Post”, the minute of silence, and the sounding of “Reveille”. Following these, wreathes are laid.

The “Last Post” is a British Army bugle call going back well into the 18th Century, with Dutch roots before that. It is the traditional last bugle call of the day, largely signalling to all soldiers in ear-shot that the routines of the day are finished. Sentries are out, and everybody else should be in bed. However, like all bugle calls, it has a slightly different meaning on a battlefield.

Imagine some battlefield in the era of gunpowder and muskets as dusk is closing in. There is a gunpowder haze floating over fields coated with the dead, dying and wounded. In this circumstance, the “Last Post” is a rallying call for the wounded and those who have got separated – ‘The day is done, the fighting is over. Here is rest, here is safety, here are your comrades, come here.’

Do we imagine, besides the lame and lost, that those who were untimely ripped from life would ignore this call too? Do we dare to think they couldn’t? The question is seldom voiced and we cannot answer it anyway. But we sound the ‘Last Post’ at our cenotaphs to symbolically end a day, but perhaps also to call in the missing to the empty tombs we built for them.

The giant cenotaph at the Menin Gate in Ypres was built for 90,000 soldiers from the British Commonwealth who lie without known graves after the four years of fighting around the city in the First World War. At 8:00 PM every day of the year, three Belgian firemen from Ypres blow the ‘Last Post’ at the Menin Gate on silver trumpets. It is a duty they take religiously. Families from Australia, Britain, Canada and elsewhere have been coming to the Menin Gate for 85 years to lay flowers and remember their fallen.

‘Reveille’ is the other bookend to minute of silence. It was the first bugle call of the day for some centuries in the British Army and the message is basically ‘Everyone get up!’ It has a lesser meaning but one that is still significant in Christian imagery. There will be that last morning someday in which all the living and the dead will arise together in that final resurrection, when all will be made whole.

The minute between ‘Last Post’ and ‘Reveille’ is the most charged of all and the oldest element of the ceremony.

Even in Prehistoric times, human notions of magic have held that to own a part of somebody might give you the means of controlling them even in death. Carrying off a trophy from fallen enemies was deemed by many cultures to be a way of controlling their spirits. Another widespread belief was that to mutilate a fallen enemy even further would spoil his chances of enjoying the afterlife. More practically, scavenging animals have always feasted on the dead and looters have often despoiled them of anything valuable.

In consequence, whenever possible, you guarded your dead after a battle until you could properly dispose of them with your culture’s usual rituals. This was done to protect from mutilation, trophy-seeking and from being dragged off by scavengers. Also, more practically in the long centuries before we got a grip on internal medicine, one stood watch over the dead to ensure they weren’t just unconscious or in a coma.

Symbolically, the minute of silence is not just a pause for reflection. Sandwiched between the last and first bugle calls of the day, it is a ritualized night vigil for the dead to guard them from insult and further harm. By standing watch, we not only remember them but we pledge ourselves to protect them from dishonour.

Thus here is the ceremony in brief: We call to the spirits of our slain to a tomb built for them and announce that is nightfall. We stand vigil to guard and remember them, we end the “night” with the implicit hope that we shall meet together again.

The history of the Poppy is pretty well known, especially to Canadians. As for the wreath-laying ceremony, human beings have been marking graves with flowers for tens of thousands of years. Moreover, to the Greeks and Romans (and so far as we know, other ancient European peoples), wreaths were offered as prizes to champions and heroes. Leaving a wreath at a cenotaph is another unconscious declaration that it is a home for the dead who offered up their lives for our safety and well-being.

Wearing a poppy and maintaining a minute of silence on November 11th is a highly charged ritual full of significance. It is more than maintaining a memory and rending honours; it is a pledge and a shared hope in life after death.

By John Thompson    11/11/2010


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