We memorialize many things in life - births, deaths, events. Whether the effort is global or local, enormous or tiny, we are all trying to accomplish the same thing; remembrance and relevance.
Many of us at ECG have spent time in academia studying and assessing Pericles' Funeral Oration. Historians love this speech as it details a key time in ancient Greek history (Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta) and the motives of the Athenian form of government. Rhetoricians admire the speech because of all the lessons of persuasion this early work (~431 BC) provides. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then it one of the most flattered speeches in western history.
We are reminded of this speech every Memorial Day, as it provides documentation of a multi-millennia tradition of remembrance for our war dead. But the key to this tradition of remembrance continuing for so long is the communication effort to make it relevant to the living.
One key to a memorial speech is connecting to the past through people as opposed to history or events. Regardless of whether the culture is eastern or western, ancestors, forefathers, mothers, and descendants should be called out. Consider Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg: "Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation…"
Or look at how Apple remains a progressive company today while firmly anchored to the principles and philosophies of Steve Jobs as related by Tim Cook to the evolving present. There are many heroes of the past that cast a long shadow to the present.
The modern American tradition of Memorial Day started as a healing activity for the catastrophic losses of the Civil War – over 600,000 dead for a US population that at the time was only 31,443,321; ten-fold smaller than the population today.
Less than 20 years after the Civil War ended, a future icon of American jurisprudence said this to relate the remembrance to the relevant:
"So to the indifferent inquirer who asks why Memorial Day is still kept up we may answer, it celebrates and solemnly reaffirms from year to year a national act of enthusiasm and faith. It embodies in the most impressive form our belief that to act with enthusiasm and faith is the condition of acting greatly…Our dead brothers still live for us, and bid us think of life, not death – of life to which in their youth they lent the passion and joy of the spring. As I listen, the great chorus of life and joy begins again, and amid the awful orchestra of seen and unseen powers and destinies of good and evil our trumpets sound once more a note of daring, hope, and will." [Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., 1884 – 20 years prior to his Supreme Court appointment]
This annual remembrance has been related to connectedness and divisiveness; the need for peace or aggression; leadership or conformity; honoring memory by our actions today for whatever cause. We accept this regularly in public to implore actions and beliefs in our populace, and we do this privately to teach our children about the virtues embodied by ancestors.
We need to learn to do it more often, expand the circle. What of our co-workers, for example? They often get more of us than our families, so why not share the best of us? After all, the past shows us the way into the future, but only if it is communicated and heard.