REMEMBRANCE-TIDE is over and now, the space for further reflection. A time to stand back from the division and anger engendered by the former Home Secretary and to consider what it may mean in these harrowing, divisive and contentious times to remember the dead of so many wars.
On Remembrance Sunday, the Quaker Meeting of which I am a member laid a wreath of white poppies at the town War Memorial. We always do this after the official ceremony has dispersed. There is no disrespect or exclusion implicit in this decision: it is taken so that 30 minutes of silence may be at the heart of our gathering.
In this undivided and undistracted silence, we mourn all lives taken by war, in all nations. Lives of servicemen and women, and – as the gates of hell opened in Israel-Palestine remind us anew – of civilians. We honour their courage, we shudder for their suffering. We repent the failures which make for war and renew our own commitment to searching for the gruelling roads to peace.
Each year, the group of us whose task it is to organise this contemplative, penitent gathering, spend careful time in selecting the short passages of prose and poetry which are read and of the message we wish to convey through these and through the local media. This year, our wreath bore these words, “Remembrance is the beginning of working for peace.”
Two weeks later, that concept is beginning to evolve for me and for other Friends involved. After a few days, I wondered if it should have begun: “Remembering well…” Now, I think the better representation would have been: “Remembering well is the beginning of peace: Let us remember with integrity.”
We all have people to remember, whether they have died in the horrors of armed conflict or quietly in their beds, surrounded by love. But when the language of remembrance for those killed by war is formalised, it risks slipping over that edge which divides the dignified from the clichéd and the tendentious. This is understandable. Familiar words bring comfort to many who are there to grieve partners, parents, children, siblings and friends. But do they move us to repentance, to a grief which may in fact go unconsoled as it stands on the edge of the abyss, acknowledging the terrifying futility which is war? The indispensable condition without which there will never be peace?
I recently read some thoughts from a serving soldier remembering a friend killed in Afghanistan. The pain was in the plainness and it moved me greatly. My sense is that ‘the fallen’ who ‘will not grow old’ may not cut it when the heart is clenched in raw grief. Surely ‘my mate’, my dad, ‘my sister’, ‘me wee lad’ is the register which points us towards truth.
In Anthem for Doomed Youth, Wilfred Owen asks:
“What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
– Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.”
“The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.”
There will be endless slow dusks in the lives of people who mourn and this also must never be forgotten. This is the time when the eye of the heart may be clearest and the inward vision made pure. Do we permit war – at least in part – by exalting its sacrifices through a long unquestioned form of rhetoric? Is this a kind of inadvertent dishonesty camouflaged in a century of rituals?
Maybe we could begin to consider a way of conducting Remembrance renewed in humility. To freeze something so essential in a ‘tradition’ which does not permit evolution or examination may just step a little too close to idolatry.
© Jill Segger (England) is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, The Catholic Herald, Tribune, The Friend and Reform, among other publications. Her acclaimed book Words Out of Silence was published by Ekklesia in 2019. She is an active member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. Jill became an honorary associate director in 2010 and is now Ekklesia’s Contributing Editor. She is also a musician and has been a composer. Her recent columns are available here and her pre-2021 articles can be found here. You can follow Jill on Twitter: @quakerpen