Desecrating the Dead

Before I left for my pilgrimage, a reader sent me some very upsetting links and asked me to comment on the situation she presented. I wasn’t able to do that while I was away (very, very limited internet access), but I’m going to do it now. I suspect, given the response when I first mentioned this on facebook, that this might piss people off. That is not my intention. I am an ancestor worker. I speak for the dead, particularly the military dead. My goal in writing this is to raise awareness of certain issues and even conflicts surrounding the dead and how we honor or dishonor them.

Before I go any farther, read here, and here, and here, and here.

Truth be told, I’d been reading articles about this too and it was bothering me. I figured eventually I’d have to write something on it. In the aftermath of the controversy over the Confederate flag, there have been several instances of people desecrating and/or vandalizing Confederate graveyards. I was pissed off the first time I read about it, but hoped that it was an anomaly. Sadly, it’s not.

Now, I despise the Confederate flag. To me, it represents institutionalized racism at its core and is a symbol of ignorance and of a culture that supported the dehumanization of slavery. It’s an ugly symbol and I’m glad for the push to remove it from state buildings. I know that’s not the way a lot of Southerners see it. I know for many, it’s a symbol of state and cultural pride; but I know its history and I can’t look at it without feeling ever so slightly ill.

So what is my objection here? Well, these memorials are honoring veterans. They’re not honoring the cause for which those veterans fought. We’re talking about graveyards and memorials representing valor (even one’s opponents can behave with valor) but also loss and devastation. Military memorials aren’t raised just to commemorate the dead, though that is their primary, obvious purpose; they’re raised also that we might not forget the lessons inherent in that sacrifice.  There were many lessons to be had in the Civil War, and I seriously doubt that our country has learned many of them.

This is something I had to come to terms with when I did my first ancestor pilgrimage. A few years ago, I was directed by my military dead to do an ancestor pilgrimage to several Civil War sites. I started with Gettysburg and worked my way south. I was doing ok till I hit Richmond, VA. I work with the dead. I speak for the dead. I am very focused on honoring the dead, particularly the military dead. The first time, however, that I was directed to a Confederate graveyard (after having visited several Union graveyards), I was distinctly uncomfortable. In fact, I was disgusted by the cause for which they’d fought. Before going to the graveyard, I had taken a riverboat ride and it took us right past what had been the largest slave market in the south (or one of them) and I almost threw up. I could sense it. The anguish left marks the land remembered. I had to sit for a very long time to parse out for myself just what honoring the dead means.

It took me awhile. It helped that I encountered the spirit of a young man who had died unknown. It was the grave of an unknown southern soldier who died at Seven Pines. I helped that I sensed his anguish that his mother would never know where he died, would never be able to visit his grave. It helped that I sensed his bitter confusion about why he’d fought. It brought it back to the human, to the personal for me. Still, it was a hard thing to honor those dead, but I came to this conclusion: It’s not about honoring their causes. I could give a fuck about some of the various causes the dead I honor fought for. In other cases, I’m adamantly opposed. It doesn’t matter though; at the base level of respect and offering, it doesn’t matter. (I can’t help but think of the example of the Verdun Memorial at Douaumont: the bones of both the German soldiers and the French are all together and honored). Honoring the dead is about honoring the men and women who were peoples’ brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, sons, and daughters. It’s the human component, and their sacrifices and courage in some cases, in others their humanity as flawed as it may be. It’s about the continuity of experience and the way our dead support us — and they do support us, even if their examples are negative ones.

Someone, during the course of a debate about this on facebook, asked if I would honor a Nazi? I was waiting for the question. It’s a good one, and it forced me to explore the nuances of the work I do. The thought immediately disgusted me, but I had to move past that. I would not honor their cause. But if I came across a grave that had Nazi symbols, I wouldn’t deface it. It’s the act of defacing the memorial that I find reprehensible. What I might advocate is information clearly posted detailing exactly what those symbols represent and why they’re bad, and most of all, how we are charged with learning from our dead so those atrocities never happen again.

I also firmly believe in doing ancestor work that it is acceptable to call upon certain dead to help clean up the mess they caused. I won’t honor certain branches of the dead…I tell them outright: “you get nothing from me unless you step up and do your part to inspire your descendants to help repair the damage you have done.” Why? Because we’re still dealing with that damage and while we may be the hands and boots on the ground, the dead have their obligations too. In no way, shape, or form, would I excuse the harm done by any group of dead. I still maintain though, that we have to deal with our ancestors and for the South, those Confederate soldiers are ancestors, in many cases remembered and beloved ancestors. Should a mother not remember her son, even if he fought in a war that she disagreed with? Is it about the war or about the common human bond?

We can honor the dead while at the same time being upfront about their mistakes. In fact, I think doing so respectfully and above all else honestly is an ancestral obligation.

One of the things that I might recommend, is large scale group elevations for both sides. This is a wound. It’s a shattering infection in our collective ancestral threads, the consequences of which still impact us as a nation. If I had to prescribe as an ancestor worker, just off the top of my head, I’d want to see group elevations done for healing. There are in fact cases where I might refuse to honor a specific ancestor, where their individual atrocities were so great that in good conscience I could not include them in my ancestor veneration. There are rites and rituals for that too, but even there, I don’t think I’d desecrate a grave….that desecrates me as a human being.

Desecrating and vandalizing the dead does nothing to erase the impact of their lives – for good, or for ill. All it does is compound whatever damage, whatever hurt, whatever harm evoked the urge to destroy. It diminishes us. In the end, whether those monuments stand or not, whether the graves are left unmolested or not, they’re still our dead. This is still our collective history. There are still lessons to be learned.

EDIT: I was just alerted to yet another incident here. It really sickens and angers me, one of the other reasons I waited a month to write anything. it’s cowardice: attacking the dead because you can’t deal with working toward change amongst the living.

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Posted on August 2, 2015, in Ancestor Work and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. For what it’s worth, I agree with you wholeheartedly. If you can’t honor someone, don’t visit the grave. Don’t tend it. But don’t desecrate it, even if it’s a Nazi. Show that you’re better than the Nazi was in life. And remember that the dead are past that now. They deserve some respect just for giving us life.

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  2. Southern statuary is more problematic, since it lies at the nexus of honouring the dead and asserting white supremacy. Some went up when the South finally recovered and could honour their dead. The Daughters of the Confederacy are the ones who did most of this. However, during the 1950s and 1960s, Southerners used the Southern Cause as a finger in the eye of the federal government and integration. In other words, a lot of the Southern Dead got highjacked in the cause of White Supremacy. So parsing it out is a struggle in itself.

    I remember touring the all of battlefields of Virginia and visiting the shrines where the Southern Generals fell. (It took me several years.)The landscape is dotted with them including the A.P. Hill Memorial Coin-operated Laundromat, built where he fell. The feeling I got was two-fold. One was honouring the Dead, and the other was sorrow that so many was lost in a futile cause. Yes, the feeling was one of futility and sacrifice.

    The defacing comes from the wound that never was allowed to heal. The anger that simmers just below the facade of race relations. It needs to be lanced somehow before the defacing of graves can stop.

    I am not for defacing of graves. I am for the angry ones to be given a voice as to their Dead. Which in many parts of the South is sadly lacking. Meanwhile, since my neighbourhood is built on the blood of Southern Dead (both Union and Confederate), I have worked hard in doing Ancestor elevation for both.

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  3. I do not have a problem with the confederate flag being removed from public places but I do have issues with it being removed from historical sites, memorials and the like. Great post.

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