Some food for thought.

My Uncle Ernest.
This was made by my brother Cliff Rosenberg

I found this posted on the web today. I did NOT write it myself  although I kind of wish I had. It is wonderfully written and the Author has given me permission to share it. I need to tell you that this does NOT mean he is backing or endorsing either myself or the VCP in any way.
The first version was written in 2011 and published in the National Post. This version was written in 2017

A Reflection on Remembrance Day
– John Thompson

Ritual is an old human activity and some of the best ones operate at a more or less unconscious level combining symbolism with myth and belief. Our basic Remembrance Day rituals on November 11th seem right and fitting, and they evolved that way in the immediate aftermath of the First World War.

Our Remembrance Day observation combines elements of classical Greece and Rome, a Christian hope of resurrection, and practices that probably go back to Pre-Historic times. They were not designed by a committee so much as they were assembled in 1919-1922 by the people of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, and the United Kingdom.

Various officials yearned to design November 11th ceremonies, but King George V had the sense to rein them in. Remembrance Day was how the people of Britain and the Dominions chose to commemorate their losses, and practices from Melbourne to Cape Town, to Glasgow to Calgary rapidly gelled together in a broad consensus, and the people chose well.

It is a misnomer to think of the monuments where we gather as ‘War Memorials’, they are no such thing. Most of them are cenotaphs. The word Cenotaph is Greek for ‘empty tomb’ and they deliberately constructed them for those who died far from home. Pericles, in one of his great orations, reminded the Athenians that a cenotaph was somehow more honorable than a real tomb.

In a real tomb there is the moldering corruption of a corpse. In a cenotaph, one calls the spirit of the dead to house themselves within it, and it serves as an inspiration of their great deeds and sacrifice. Therefore, according to Pericles, a cenotaph is purer and more honorable than a mere grave.

Before our minute or two of silence, the old British bugle call ‘Last Post’ is sounded. The Last Post is a beautiful call, but with two purposes. Usually, it was the last call of the British Army’s day, generally announcing that the flag was down and the evening’s sentries were posted. In short the day was over, and soldiers down in the taverns of the town had best come in to bed.

Last Post had another more deliberate purpose on other days. Imagine a gunpowder battlefield at dusk. In the gathering darkness, there is still the acrid haze of gunpowder smoke; here and there across the field, the wounded and those who have been separated from their units are in danger of being lost. The Last Post is to call them in: “Here is rest, here is where your comrades are. The fighting is over, here is rest and respite, come here.”

Underneath our rational exteriors, most people quietly harbor a suspicion that what we cannot see is still real. Do we truly believe that the dead on a battlefield who were violently ripped from life would ignore the peaceful promise of this bugle call? At some level we believe (or hope) that they wouldn’t.

The Last Post is the last call of the day. At the end of our silence, the Rouse is sounded (Reveille is an American call, and not the call we use). This bugle call is the Army’s traditional start of the morning, dawn has arrived and it is time to get up. However, it is also a part of Christian imagery and belief that there will come a day when all the living and the dead will arise together and the hope that there will be no partings after that. The Rouse marks our hope that we will see our dead again, restored to life and vitality.

The silence bracketed by these two bugle calls is something else again and it is very old. What it really is as a ritualized vigil over the dead. We know that it is a very ancient human practice to watch over the dead – to guard them. We know our ancestors at the very edge of history did it. Many human cultures did the same thing.

There is a practical reason, especially from those societies whose medical knowledge was less than ours… are the dead truly dead? We watch to make sure that we are not about to bury somebody who is merely unconscious or in a coma. We also – as we have probably done for tens of thousands of years – guard our dead against insult by a scavenger.

The martial component of a vigil over those who died in battle incorporates these purposes and two more besides. The dead are watched to prevent their corpses being further marred by an uncouth enemy who would insult their bodies or carry parts of them away as a trophy. Also, the honored dead would be watched to keep their corpses from being looted.

Other things are combined with these purposes… the vigil is a pledge of honor, a statement to the living and the dead alike that we still care for the fallen and will preserve them from insult. It is also an occasion for those holding vigil to privately reflect upon the dead, to pray and to grieve – each in their own way, yet all together, privately doing so in a public setting.

Essentially, the people of Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa spontaneously created a symbolic night watch. In our Remembrance Day observation (for it truly is ours), we call our dead to a cenotaph to rest in honor, promise that we will protect them from insult and desecration and hope to be united with them once more.

This simple Remembrance Day Ceremony wasn’t designed by a committee – it was created more or less spontaneously throughout the UK and the Dominions in the immediate aftermath of the war. It is a pure and simple ceremony that says everything that needs to be said, without saying a thing. There is no reason to encrust it with additional observances, and certainly not with speeches.

King George V knew enough to let the ceremony evolve by itself and to keep his officials from meddling with it.

Two bugle calls, framing a symbolic night watch at a cenotaph… it’s not a bad way to spend a couple of minutes every year.

 John Thompson


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