Many of us may be old enough to remember the original name for Memorial Day - Decoration Day. It began as a day to honor the dead from the Civil War by decorating their graves. Eventually, it became a day to honor the graves of all veterans, but for a long time the emphasis remained on visiting and honoring their graves. My own generation grew up in the aftermath of World War II, and visiting the cemetery on or near Memorial Day was part of that war legacy. Even today, volunteers still visit cemeteries to place flags on graves – a reminder of the importance of the special places of memory we call cemeteries.
So we celebrate this annual Mass today for all the dead buried in our own parish cemetery, established by Knoxville’s first Catholic community, committed and devoted to doing their Christian duty to faithful departed. That we do so here in an almost empty church rather than at the cemetery as we usually do speaks to our present predicament in this time of pandemic, which has made it difficult if not impossible for many of us to gather at all and has been especially hard on those who are mourning their beloved dead without the usual rituals of wake services, funeral Masses, and burial rites. All the more reason, then, to reflect upon the importance of those rituals and the realities that underlie them.
In Italian, the word for cemetery is campo santo – literally, “holy field,” or, as we would say in ordinary English, “holy ground.” Cemeteries are special places for us – special not just because they are blessed by the Church and marked by beautiful monuments. They are special places because they is where we remember those who have died, who have gone before us in life, our cherished past to whom we owe our present. Remembering is one of the things that especially makes us human. To remember those who have died is to acknowledge the importance of their lives - and the common humanity which we share with them in life and in death. Remembering is also one of the things that especially makes us Christian. So, even when we cannot gather as we would wish, to remember those who have gone before us in faith is to celebrate the multitude of ways in which the grace of God touched and transformed each one of them in life - and the hope which we still share with them after death.
Homily for the Annual Memorial Day Mass, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, May 23, 2020. The entire Mass may be viewed on the Immaculate Conception Church Facebook Page and later on the parish website icknoxville.org