Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Contemplating commemorations

The flags are still at half-mast in front of state and federal properties, but the official remembrances of the Kennedy assassination as well as the TV specials and news stories are for the most part behind us. And I, for one, find this a relief.

I don’t think my aversion to these anniversary commemorations that seem to border on reenactments is due to the fact that I wasn’t yet born when President Kennedy was assassinated. I felt the same way two years ago during the 9/11 ten-year anniversary commemorations.

It’s not a matter of denial. I agree absolutely that tragedies and their victims need to be remembered. But remembered how? It’s the tradition of dwelling on the shocking or tragic moments that ended their lives that I find unsatisfying.  I would so much rather honor President Kennedy by learning more about the Cuban Missile Crisis or reading about the history of the Peace Corps than seeing yet another photo of the motorcade, hearing yet again about the blood spattered on the pink suit. 

The memory of September 11th gives us much to reflect upon as well, from the Patriot Act to the level of acceptance for Muslims in America, and, of course, tens of thousands of people mourn individual losses from that day. But seeing footage of a burning building remains horrifying and scary, just as it was on that day, and I simply don’t see any redeeming qualities in the experience of being frightened and horrified all over again.

We had an interesting off-the-record debate at church earlier this fall. Every year, in preparation for Day of the Dead on November 1, our Music and Worship Committee asks parishioners to submit names of the dead to be read as part of a commemorative ceremony. A year ago, I submitted five names: three were personal friends lost over the past few months, and two others were townspeople whom I thought other church members might not think to include on the list. Many people at our church submit the same names year after year, but when the request came out this fall, I wasn’t tempted to write down any of these names from last year again.

“It’s not that I don’t still mourn them or think about them, especially the two to whom I was closest – one a former next-door neighbor and the other a high school classmate,” I said to our minister as I explained my concerns about the Day of the Dead tradition. “It’s just that commemorating them by reading their names aloud the first year that they are gone feels respectful and appropriate, but reading their names year after year just reminds me that they will be gone forevermore.”

But another church member in on the conversation disagreed with me, saying that his late mother had been an active and enthusiastic churchgoer for decades before her death five years ago, and he felt it was right for her name to be spoken there in a ceremonial context once a year.

Perhaps I’m being callous, or am in denial about the scope of tragedy. It’s hard to know what the right answer is. But with the anniversary of the Newtown massacre coming up, I anticipate thinking about this all over again. Remember each child: pay tribute to the adults who lost their lives: make a contribution to a cause; join an anti-gun group. But using the anniversary to relive the events themselves? I just don’t see the value in it.

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