[Viewpoint] In memory of their holy sacrificeJune 6 marked the 56th Memorial Day - commemorating servicemen and independence activists who staked their lives fighting for their country. Surprisingly, many elementary school children know little about the day beyond the fact that it is a school holiday. If not for the waving of half-staff flags on the streets and in apartment windows, the day is no different from any public holiday of relaxation and no work.
We can hardly blame the kids because few adults stop what they are doing at the cue of the siren resonating throughout the country that morning to pay tribute to our predecessors for their sacrifices. We just have to be thankful that the day is not been sneered at as remnants of ultra-nationalism.
Politicians flock to Seoul National Cemetery on that day. It’s customary for them to pay a visit after a turning point such as elections and appointments or to make an important announcement. It is a ritual to seek blessings from revered ancestors.
Those scenes are usually broadcast on prime time news. But we cannot know whether their inner thoughts behind the ritual of bowing and incense burning are as befitting to the site. It may all be just part of a political display of customary formalities.
We are seriously misguided about the National Cemetery and Memorial Day. We believe we are upholding the tradition of paying homage to war heroes and patriots by visiting the cemetery.
But the tail is wagging the dog. Paying tribute does not shed renewed light on their heroic acts and accomplishments. They have already been transfigured into a holy national spirit through their martyrdom and sacrifices and resurrected as guiding angels for the nation and land. Their status and deeds are not augmented through accolades or any lessened by lack of them. They have become immortal through their heroic deaths and sacrifices regardless of habitual rituals.
To discover the true meaning of remembering the heroic souls is to purify ourselves by raising the dignity and reputation of our ancestors. We feel respectable when we are invited to an important event. We would feel honored if we were in the presence of a president or an important person. To be in the company of a valuable person fills our hearts with joy and pride not because of the host’s reputation, but because we feel appreciated and dignified.
On Memorial Day, the heroic spirits of this nation invite us to celebrate the freedom and prosperity of this land and the National Cemetery is the venue for the celebration. The hosts are the patriotic spirits and we the honorable guests. We do not raise their eternal dignity any further with our presence. Instead we should express appreciation for the invitation and celebration of our freedom as well as elevation of our self-pride.
At the National Cemetery stands the tower of unknown soldiers. The tower contains no urns. The emptiness and anonymity produce a gush of emotion. Their full lives were cut short, erased and lost. These young men and women cannot be called upon and mourned. They are like the flowers and insects in the field with no names. But nameless flowers turn spring fields colorful.
The heroic deaths and sacrifices of nameless soldiers have served as the pillars of our community’s remarkable prosperity and democracy. They may not have left their names, but have bequeathed a holier legacy - that there is no greater love than to sacrifice one’s life for their country. Without roots to stand on, a tree cannot branch out and grow flowers or fruit. Patriotic ancestors are the roots to the fruits of prosperity and freedom we enjoy today. On this Memorial month, we should all take a moment to ponder how we can finish their undone life and work.
*The writer is a professor of civil ethics education at Seoul National University.
By Park Hyo-jong