Reflections on Remembrance Day

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 annual Remembrance Day rituals on November 11th seem right and fitting, even if those who first practiced them did not openly articulate the purposes of the period of silence and the cenotaphs.

Our Remembrance Day observation combines elements of classical Greece and Rome, a Christian hope of resurrection, and some ancient practices that go back to Prehistoric times.

The ceremony we practice was not an official design; King George V (himself deeply shocked by the First World War) told his officials to let the people of the Commonwealth and Empire develop their own observations. The core cenotaph ceremony we all know had evolved out of South Africa and by 1922 was more or less universal throughout the British-led world. Its essential elements were deemed by those closest to the war as fitting, right and proper.

To begin with, we tend to meet on November 11th at cenotaphs – often miscalled memorials. 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 for war dead than a real tomb. In a real tomb, somewhere, there is the moldering corruption of a corpse. In a cenotaph, one calls the spirit of the dead to house themselves within it, and the cenotaph serves as an inspiration of their great deeds and sacrifice. Therefore, according to Pericles, these are purer and more honorable than any 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 it originally had two purposes. By general practice, it was the last call of the British Army’s day, generally announcing that at the barracks and cantonments, the flag was down and the evening’s sentries were mounting guard. 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 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 sounded 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 of us might quietly harbor a suspicion that what we cannot see is still real. Do we truly believe that the dead on a battlefield who were so violently ripped from life would ignore the peaceful promise of this bugle call? At some level we probably believe (or hope) that they wouldn’t.

The ceremony begins with the last call of the day. At the end of our silence, the first call is sounded: The Rouse. This bugle call is the Army’s traditional first call 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 one dawn when all the living and the dead arise together and the hope that – for most of us anyway – there will be no partings after that. Reveille marks our hope that we will see the dead again restored to life and vitality.

The silence bracketed by these two bugle calls is something else again and it is very old. It really is a ritualized vigil over the dead. We know that it is a very ancient practice to watch over the dead – to guard them. We know that the Celts and the Germanic tribesmen at the very edge of history did it. Many other human cultures have done 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 the dead 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.

Thus 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 reflect upon the dead, to pray for them and to grieve.

More practically, the silence lets all participants remember or reflect all together, but each in their own way. It is a communal act of individual observance where Catholics don’t cross themselves, Jews do not don prayer shawls, Muslims don’t prostrate themselves, and so on.

Wreaths are an ancient practice too. Even in prehistoric times, flowers could be placed with or on the dead. In Ancient Greece and Rome, a wreath was among the very highest honors that could be bestowed – a symbol of victory and of courage.

It is in our nature to keep embellishing some public ceremonies, but the core cenotaph ceremony was meant to be pure, simple and brief. Speeches (especially by politicians) are unnecessary, reciting “In Flanders Fields or Binyon’s “For the Fallen”; or having a piper play “Flowers of the Forest” are more appropriate but not essential.

In our annual observations on Remembrance Day, we crowd a lot of meaning into a very brief ceremony. We remember the deeds of our war dead, call them home to rest and honor, and promise that we will protect them from insult and desecration, and hope to be united with them once more. Not a bad way to spend a couple of minutes every year…