Those who need a reminder about why we celebrate Memorial Day should drive down Bailey, Holtzclaw or Central avenues in the geographic heart of the city. At certain points along those thoroughfares, it’s possible to view row after undulating row of the headstones that increasingly fill Chattanooga National Cemetery, arguably one of the most hallowed places in the region. Indeed, those who travel those roads regularly can mark the passage of the years by the steady growth in the number of markers that memorialize those who once answered the nation’s call to military service.
The cemetery, encircled by walls of stone and metal, is the final resting place for more than 48,000 men and women (and some of their family members) who served the United State in war and in peace. The cemetery is well-tended, a tranquil refuge that is quite the opposite of the incredible din, chaos and horror that many of those buried there experienced in defense of their country. Interment at such a serene site is the nation’s final tribute to those who helped safeguard the freedoms Americans enjoy.
Chattanooga National Cemetery is no ordinary cemetery. It has a rich history of its own, one worth remembering on a day conceived to honor the United States’ war dead. U.S. Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas, the fabled “Rock of Chickamauga” who gained that name in desperate fighting by the creek that gave the battle its name, issued a general order in 1863 that created the cemetery.
Union dead from Chickamauga, Missionary Ridge, Orchard Knob, Lookout Mountain and other skirmishes and battles in the area were interred there in late 1863. Two years later, more than 12,000 Union soldiers — about 5,000 unknown — rested there. In 1867, the cemetery was given official government designation. It has fulfilled its purpose admirably since then.
One Revolutionary War veteran is buried there, as are those who served in the nation’s other wars and in peacetime. All are safely at rest in the cemetery. It is fitting, then, that the community’s annual Memorial Day ceremony, scheduled to begin at 10:30 a.m. Monday, is held near the graves of those who died in uniform and the many more who served their country. The program begins with a musical prelude, and the keynote address will begin about 11.
The music and the holiday-specific speech are a tradition, part of the comforting rituals of the Memorial Day observance. Those rites never grow old. One example: Tens of thousands of small flags will be placed by the headstones in the cemetery by Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts representing area troops. Doing so connects the young Americans with earlier generations through an activity suffused with meaning and pride.
Events at the cemetery during the holiday weekend undoubtedly will stir memories of times past and of men, women and events that are recalled now only by a shrinking part of the population and, increasingly, in textbooks. Those who come to the cemetery on Memorial Day span generations.
Families come to honor loved ones — a parent or parents, or children, or friends and acquaintances. Memorial Day attendees are of various ages, but united by the desire to pay homage to those who died, whether long ago or, more recently, in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The comforting and familiar events of Memorial Day, of course, are not limited to the national cemetery in Chattanooga or to similar sites around the nation. Similar rituals are held in other public and private places of final rest — indeed, just about any location where those who served are buried — in major metropolises, medium-size cities, small towns and rural communities. Each is a service of commemoration and reminiscence that living Americans purposefully and lovingly perform for the deceased.
There are those who elect to mark the Memorial Day holiday in a manner that does not include an official commemoration. Instead, they use the day to enjoy activities with family, or simply for rest and relaxation. That is their right.
Making that choice, however, can not diminish the obligation we have to remember those who answered the nation’s call to arms. Memorial Day is an opportunity to honor the military dead. It is a time, too, to recall if only for a moment on a holiday that has become more secular than patriotic, that the price of freedom can be extraordinarily high, and that there are those who willingly pay it so that the United States remains free.