May 23, 2003

Article at The New York Sun

A New Birth of Freedom

The flowers, wreaths, crosses, and bouquets that were left at ground zero for months after the bombing of the World Trade Center struck many people as odd. But, in fact, this is an old American custom going back at least as far as the Civil War, when mourners began spontaneously decorating the graves of their slain loved ones. Lincoln had called the Civil War "a people's contest" fought largely by volunteer troops on both sides - citizen-soldiers defending God and country. But the carnage had been terrible, killing some 620,000 Americans and bringing grief to all sections of the country. In 1868, John Logan, commander of the Grand Army of the Republic - an organization of Union soldiers - issued an order establishing May 30 as the day for veterans to honor the graves of their slain Union comrades, excluding the Confederate dead. He called this "Decoration Day." We call it Memorial Day.

A second part of memorializing those killed in the Civil War was the federal reburial program, which identified and buried individual soldiers in marked graves. Historian Drew Gilpin Faust, now dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, says that this was an unprecedented action either for America or the world. Northerners, according to Mr. Faust, "argued passionately that the assumptions of American democracy for which the war was being fought required the Union government to care for and memorialize each slain body." Yale professor Edmund Morgan argues that the war was fought to vindicate the 19 th-century ideal of universal natural rights, which were at the heart of the American republic. "Universal" meant that every human being was pre cious, and that every body was to be treated as the former temple of an individual soul.

Following these principals, the War Department - what we call the Army - undertook to dig up corpses from their rough battlefield graves and ship the bodies home or to national cemeteries. Nearly 60% of the bodies were identified - a remarkable achievement.

While many soldiers were interred in the newly established national cemeteries - the first was at Gettysburg - most slain Civil War soldiers were buried in their home towns. Veterans, followed by civilians, would march through their towns to the cemeteries - an early version of our parades.

The American reburial precedent did not become universal. England, for example, forbade the repatriation of the bodies of those killed in France during World War I. Yet this modern, American, democratic drive to identify by name each person killed is a practice that has stayed with us. Witness New Yorkers' response to September 11, 2001 - their unwavering insistence that remains be sorted, identified, and buried properly. Indeed, it's interesting that so many commentators, in reaching for 9/11 metaphors, recalled images of the Civil War, which of course 9/11 was not, rather than likening the attack to Pearl Harbor. But their instincts were oddly right.

The poet Robert Lowell once pointed out Lincoln's "curious, insistent use of birth images" at Gettysburg: "brought forth," "conceived," "created," and "a new birth of freedom." In despair Lincoln tried to see hope, in destruction he saw new life. He tied the memorializing of the dead to the duty of the living to continue the efforts the slain soldiers had "so nobly advanced." Saying the world would never forget the brave men who consecrated the ground of Gettysburg with their blood, he warned, "It is for us, the living" to dedicate ourselves to the "unfinished work" of establishing for the nation "a new birth of freedom." People are moved by the Gettysburg Address for many reasons, but the insistent birth images are primary.

Indeed, poet and undertaker Thomas Lynch noted that one of the horrors of September 11 was that "people not only died, they were disappeared, pulverized, cremated immediately." Yet in finding and memorializing their remains, said Mr. Lynch, "We are saying that the disposal of our dead is done as we see fit - not as their murderers see fit." This is an act of defiance by which we "draw borders around our dead, proclaiming their immortality." And, as Lincoln urged, we continue their unfinished work.

Years ago anthropologist Conrad Cherry called the celebration of Memorial Day an "American sacred ceremony," a rite that validated this country as the "defender of democratic principles around the world." For New Yorkers, of all people, Memorial Day should be a day of solemnity and joy. Its original principles are our original principles, reconceived by 9/11 as surely as Gettysburg's "new birth of freedom" was proclaimed then.