This inscription adorns the 9/11 Memorial in New York City, and many have taken great pains to point out that this quote from Virgil’s Aeneid carries a murderous taint because of its context. Some suggest that the quote, given who said it to whom in Virgil’s text, belongs to a sentiment foreign to the spirit of the 9/11 Memorial, but this merely demonstrates how people can get profoundly trapped in a myth that strictly binds meaning to context, allowing scrupulous literary critical criteria to restrict meaning to the point of choking the breath out of mystery and evaporating creative energy, as if a phrase cannot ever have deep meaning apart from the sacrosanct “original literary context.”
Maybe a phrase can receive a fresh application in a new context.
In the Orthodox Christian Tradition in which I serve as a priest and military chaplain, we sing a solemn hymn at funerals and at the memorials sung on each anniversary of a death: “Memory Eternal.” As we gently kiss the cheeks of family members and friends of those who have departed in death—cheeks soaked in the tears of sorrow, mourning, and the empty feeling of loss—we say, “May his/her/their memory be eternal.”
So here is what I suggest: as we commemorate Memorial Day, let us lift Virgil’s words from the historic and literary context and do what communities of readers have been doing since stories first began to find their place in print; namely, re-contextualize them.
“No day shall erase you from the memory of time” carries with it the same spiritual and emotional weight as “Memory Eternal,” and absolutely nothing says we cannot use Virgil’s words to express our own quiet prayer on behalf of all the warriors who have fallen on the field of battle. We whisper this prayer despite the spurious nature of all war and despite the fact that history has not always been kind to many of the conflicts in which the U.S. has engaged. Regardless of the historical circumstance, warriors answer the nation’s costly call to arms, and all of them deserve to be honored for this. In particular, those who died in battle and whose graves are marked around the world, and those who rest in unmarked plots or whose elements have been completely absorbed into the earth or the vast ocean, deserve sincere, sacred, and solemn remembrance.
To those who have fallen in combat, dying right on the field of battle, or years later from wounds sustained in the fight, we say, with heads bowed and voices low, “No day shall erase you from the memory of time,” and we wish for them “May your memory be eternal.” In doing so, we venerate not war itself—an entity that any sane person would wish into the oblivion of non-existence—but the warriors who have fallen, the light of whose legacy we must never extinguish through neglect or preoccupation. Memorial Day has become a vigil—a watchful refusal to allow the sacrifice of fallen warriors to go unheeded, nor the primary lesson of their sacrifice to be forgotten; namely, the value of placing hope in peace and longing for the day when warriors no longer die at each other’s hands. And so, to our honored dead, we reiterate, “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.”