I strolled through the Gifford section of the Provincetown Cemetery recently, reading the inscriptions on headstones I found intriguing. Many of the people named on those stones are not in the ground at all. They were lost at sea, but their gravesites offered grieving families a firm place to stand in mourning.
Cemeteries are good places to contemplate history. One particular stone I stopped at told of a young man who died at a place called New Bern, N.C. in the early 1860s. I cannot now recall his name, but his marker brought to mind the likely reason a Provincetown boy would die on that date, in that place: he would have been fighting in the American Civil War.
A search for other casualties of that war led me to the impressive marble obelisk erected by the citizens of Provincetown to honor those who, as the engraving says, “sacrificed their lives to save their country during the great rebellion of 1861-1865.”
Properly called the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, it is a memorial to locals who fought on land and sea. Upon its face, in bas-relief, are an anchor, crossed cannons and muskets, and a square-rigged ship under full sail, the pennants atop its masts flying in the wind. At the very tip of the spire is a draped urn, symbolizing immortality.
I like to think those of us who wander graveyards reading stones are immortalizing the dead through our imaginings of who they were and what they stood for. Every Memorial Day, we are encouraged to stop amid our shopping and barbecues to recall those who died so that we can preserve our values and pursue happiness in our own ways.
The trouble is, there is also a kind of immortality to the contentious ideas that our ancestors fought over. The same grievances that led us into civil war were communicated with alarming clarity during the Jan. 6 invasion of our nation’s Capitol. A man walked across the atrium with the Confederate battle flag over his shoulder. Racial epithets were emblazoned on T-shirts. People were killed.
It took us 100 years after the Civil War to pass serious civil rights legislation. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 made discrimination illegal, but it was enforced only sporadically. Just last week, after another half century had slipped by, voters in Provincetown approved funding for an office of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We hope to make a thorough assessment of the structures, processes, and policies that perpetuate the exclusion of marginalized people.
Some of this exclusion may be unconscious, but that does not make it acceptable. Until we face the ugly facts of our country’s origins, we will never achieve the “more perfect union” of the Constitution, nor will we fulfill the promise of “Liberty Enlightening the World.”
We cannot change history, but we can and must face it. We must be honest in how we interpret our history and accurate in how we teach it to our young. No more one-sided stories of heroic Pilgrims, virgin forests, and accommodating Indians. No more happy slaves singing spirituals in the fields. It is time to figure out how to make things as right as possible so we can change our ways going forward.
It will be hard, but if we do not undertake this expiation, there will be more rebellions and more memorials in our future. This Memorial Day, look back in gratitude for the people who gave their lives for our country. Then think forward to what you are going to do to keep it from happening again.
Bonnie McEwan is a communications consultant, writer, and teacher. She lives in Provincetown.
Memorial Day Observed
“Provincetown Remembers,” the town’s annual Memorial Day observance, will be held at 11 a.m. Monday, May 31 at Motta Field, 25 Winslow St.
Provincetown police, fire, and EMS personnel, along with representatives from Coast Guard Station Provincetown, will join members of the community in continuing the Provincetown tradition of honoring members of the armed forces who gave their lives in service to our country. Members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion will be honored guests.
This year’s ceremony will be held in accordance with current recommendations for preventing the spread of infections. The public is invited to attend and, unless otherwise instructed on that day, will be required to follow social distancing and face mask protocol if not vaccinated.
For further information, contact Jim Keefe at 774-205-0748.