Poppies and Memorializing the Dead
Mary Jo Iozzio
In the United States (and in Europe since the end of the Second World War), May is a month of remembering the war dead, with the last Monday of the month designated as a US National Holiday. Originally referred to as Decoration Day in the US, it was first celebrated in 1866, just one year after the end of the Civil War; by 1868 with flowers decorating graves and battlefields, it became a solemn annual remembrance to honor the 750,000 Union and Confederate soldiers who died during that war. With the nation “united” and foreign wars fought since, Decoration Day was renamed, now Memorial Day honors those who die in defense of the nation and its allies: while flowers still grace the graves of the fallen and US flags are planted near their service markers today, others don a poppy to memorialize beyond the cemetery gates.
I always liked the idea of poppies serving as a mobile memorial, often tied on automobile mirrors or lapels. But this flower’s link to the war dead refers to the ground combat when disturbances from the battles of World War I (1914-1918) stirred many poppies to bloom synchronously. I eschew the violence of war, however, the association of poppies with hallucinogens (consider the 19th century Opium Wars and less seriously “Alice in Wonderland” and the “Wonderful Wizard of Oz”) to numb the grief over death or loss of homeland makes eminent sense to me. But for those of us who believe in Christ’s victory over death, hallucinogens are both insufficient and unnecessary remedies. So, while I don a poppy, I remember also the penultimate occasion of our salvation when earth and heaven engaged in battle stupendous … when life broke forth nevermore to die.
This May’s memorializing honors will be no different for most, though, for those who mourn the death of a loved one, these observances (and All Souls and All Saints Days) can serve to collectively remember the meanings beyond our selves that their lives gave to us and give us opportunities to tell their stories. It was just a year ago this month that our good friend, Yiu Sing Lúcás Chan, SJ and my husband Giuseppe D’Amato died. I can be fairly certain that others too mourn loved ones who have taken up residence in a place beyond our knowing, save the hope we hold in a future beatitude.
Besides a poppy and condolences what more are we to do in memory of them? Pope Francis reminds us that, like the Good Samaritan, each of us is called to follow the Master, to be merciful as God is merciful. So the tradition invites us to practice the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, perhaps in memory of our beloved dead, perhaps also for our own edification, perhaps most as a neighbor to another in need.
Admission to the school of mercy is unrestricted and requires only a heart open to recognize others near and far in their need of food, drink, clothing, shelter, friendship, liberty, and burial and of instruction, counsel, correction, longsuffering, forgiveness, comfort, and prayer. First, to meet their material and then their spiritual needs. God has done these things and more for us, we are to go and do likewise.
In my own case, those works included gentle care of my husband’s body and his spirit for the more than two years of his demise. Although those works are among my most cherished and, at the last, the most intimate memories of our time together, they were also quite difficult and saddening. I prayed for two things: to remain respectfully mindful of his personal dignity and to be present with him through the moments of his last breaths. Both prayers were granted. Still, the works that others extended to us were as important as they relieved the anxieties surrounding his anticipated death.
Not everyone who has attended the dying enjoys or appreciates the experience as a gift; it can dishearten the most attentive and patient. Those times are chaotic as they thrust the willing into a liminal space, objectively familiar –neither sickness nor death discriminate—yet subjectively exceptional and unique. In my own year out of that immediate space, the familiar and exceptional trade places in my heart with surprising frequency. Just as chaotic, unexpected death, such as of our dear Lúcás, takes even the stalwart among those who love him to a void where attempts to find meaning or purpose fade beneath a liminal abyss. Accompanied by the person now grieved, death instigates the works of mercy that meet neighbors in their sorrow with longsuffering, friendship, and comfort.
While we toil with books and articles and writing we have, at least, the joy of a discipline that invites us, every now and again, to pause, to pray, and to contemplate things beyond our knowing. My pause here is self-serving, cathartic, and healing. Then again, there were poppies: the flowers’ red, not the war blood dread, but poppies on which the spring days fed, remembering my own now dead, looking forward to the days ahead.