Memorial Day, Cultural Envy, and Remembering

This week is Memorial Day, and I find myself thinking about those who have died.

Last weekend, my mom and I went to the viewing of someone my sister dated in high school. I knew him—not well, but I did. He would hang around our house. He rode a longboard and was amazing at the guitar. He was a year older than me, and it was a shock when I found out he had died.

On Sunday, my parents, my aunt, and my husband visited the cemetery where my paternal grandparents and a handful of other relatives are buried. I picked flowers from my parents’ yard like I’ve done since I was a kid, and we left them at the grave. I didn’t know them, really. My dad’s dad passed away a few months before I was born, and I have one memory of my grandmother (when all the relatives were in her senior-living apartment, she came out of her bedroom and my uncle said, “Here she is!”).

Still, we walked around the cemetery, and I listened to my dad and aunt exchange stories, my mom talk about some of her relatives, my husband answer questions about the twin boys he lost a long time before I knew him. And even though I didn’t know most of the people we talked about, I felt like that’s what mattered: the talking. The remembering.

The holiday made me realize a lot of what I think about death recently is shaped by two things: the Disney-Pixar movie Coco (yes, for real), and a book by Thich Nhat Hanh.

I re-watched parts of Coco the other day while my stepdaughter was trying to cram the night before her AP Spanish test—and I’ve been surprised by how much I’ve been thinking about it since then. It is a delightful, tender movie based around the Mexican holiday el Día de los Muertos—the Day of the Dead. It imagines a beautiful, rich world of the dead, where those dead are allowed to cross over to the world of the living one day a year—as long as someone living remembers them. I just keep thinking about the idea of those family members living on by being remembered, and about how family members who had passed away were still a real, tangible part of the family—and part of what made the family who they were.

The other thing I’ve found myself thinking a lot about is from the book The Art of Living by the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. Buddhism believes in reincarnation; Nhat Hanh writes about how he believes this as well, but he’s not sure it is literal. He writes that it doesn’t need to be literal, though, to be very real:

“If we look at a child, it’s easy to see the child’s mother and father, grandmother and grandfather, in her. The way she looks, the way she acts, the things she says…. She is a continuation. Her parents and ancestors are inside her. When she walks and talks, they walk and talk as well. Looking into the child, we can be in touch with her parents and ancestors, but equally, looking into the parent, we can see the child. We do not exist independently. We inter-are….
“Whenever I walk, sit, eat, or practice calligraphy, I do so with the awareness that all my ancestors are within me in that moment. I am their continuation…. They are present in my cells, in my gestures, in my capacity to draw a beautiful circle. Nor can I remove my spiritual teachers from my hand. They are there in the peace, concentration, and mindfulness I enjoy as I make the circle. We are all drawing the circle together (p. 13-15).”

I know the American Memorial Day holiday is more meant to remember veterans, but I think we need the day just to remember all our loved ones. I wish we did more, actually—I find myself feeling some cultural envy when I think about el Día de los Muertos (and yes, I know that it’s different from a Disney movie). I like the idea of traditions like setting out photos of our loved ones who are gone along with other meaningful objects, and of just of acknowledging death in a way that sugar skulls, caricatures, and celebrations seem to do.

I also feel a little cultural envy when I think of Nhat Hanh and his writing—I suppose it’s cultural, though I’m not totally sure, from this Vietnamese Buddhist monk who has spent much of his life living in France, who speaks some seven languages, who has traveled and spoken around the world. Perhaps it is just how he teaches us that we’re all interconnected that I’m thinking about—which, if it is a cultural idea, would sure be a simple thing to try to incorporate more into my own more.

I’m not sure about what happens to us after we die, but I definitely agree that other people are a part of us, and that we continue on through others. I feel really grateful for my family, for people around me. I think that also means I’m grateful for the people connected to those people, even when, like my paternal grandparents, I didn’t really know them. I’m glad I can know them through others—and through the remembering.

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