"We Will Remember Them"
His mention of religion is noteworthy, given that the Ring of Remembrance is mere meters away from the basilica of Notre-Dame de Lorette. Standing at the center of France's largest military cemetery, that church bears words from David, written for Saul and Jonathan but repurposed to grieve the nearly 40,000 soldiers buried on the grounds: "Your glory, O Israel, lies slain upon your high places! How the mighty have fallen!" (2 Sam. 1:19). Crosses mark most of those graves, but a small contingent of Muslim colonial soldiers from North Africa occupies a separate corner of the cemetery, their distinctive headstones angled towards Mecca.
While Prost's ring is made for a post-Christian Europe and may even be read as a laïque rebuff to the older site up the hill, there is something profoundly sacred about the commemorative act of naming. Consider the German cemetery at Langemark. Krieger's statues look at a mass grave containing the remains of nearly 25,000 men, with name after name filling basalt blocks on the grave's perimeter. Almost a third of those buried in the Kameradengrab are still unidentified. But they are not forgotten. Inscribed at the base of the grave are biblical words of reassurance: "I have called you by name, you are mine" (Isa. 43:1).
Long after the newest, grandest monument loses our attention and we return to our forgetting, to be named is to be—as thousands upon thousands of British gravestones testify simply—"Known unto God." Long after stone and marble symbols of national greatness have crumbled into ruin, reminders that every earthly kingdom falls, a simple list of names evokes the ancient claim of eternity that is found in every Commonwealth cemetery: "Their name liveth for evermore" (Sirach 44:14).
Christopher Gehrz is professor of history at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota. He blogs at The Pietist Schoolman, pietistschoolman.com.
Copyright © 2016 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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