Delivering eulogies is amongst the most difficult and important work rabbis and pastors do. They grapple with death and try to make sense of life. They give strength to our spirits when we need it most.[featured-image single_newwindow=”false”]
I have given some tough ones, but none as powerful and transformative as the one below. This eulogy—delivered by Rabbi Roland Gittelsohn—was described by a US Congressman as “second only to the Gettysburg Address of President Lincoln as a stirring ode to the principles of democracy that are the bedrock of this country.”
Rabbi Gittelsohn was the first Jewish Marine chaplain. He fought in the Battle of Iwo Jima. The battle ended on March 26, 1945, almost exactly 70 years ago. Rabbi Gittelsohn spoke at a memorial services for its fallen soldiers. His words helped remind survivors of the principles for which their friends fought and died. All of us can use that reminder today.
Here before us lie the bodies of comrades and friends, men who until yesterday or last week laughed with us, joked with us, trained with us, men who fought with us and feared with us. Somewhere in this plot of ground there may lie the man who could have discovered the cure for cancer.
Under one of these Christian crosses or beneath a Jewish Star of David, there may now rest a man who was destined to be a great prophet, to find the way perhaps for all to live in plenty, with poverty and hardship for none.
Now they lie here silently in this sacred soil, and we gather to consecrate the earth in their memory. It is not easy to do so. Our poor power of speech can add nothing to what these men have already done.
All that we can even hope to do is to follow their example, to show the same selfless courage in peace that they did in war; to swear that by the grace of God and the stubborn strength and power of the human will, their sons and ours will never suffer these pains again.
We dedicate ourselves, first, to live together in peace the way they fought and are buried in this war. Here lie officers and men, Negroes and whites, rich men and poor, together. Here, no man prefers another because of his faith or despises him because of his color.
Any man among the living who fails to understand that will thereby betray those who lie here dead. Whoever of us lifts up his hand in hate against a brother or thinks himself superior to those who happen to be in the minority makes of this ceremony and the bloody sacrifice it commemorates an empty, hollow mockery.
To this, then, as our solemn, sacred duty, do we the living now dedicate ourselves to the rights of Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, of white men and Negroes alike, to enjoy the democracy for which all of them have paid the price.
Too much blood has gone into this soil for us to let it lie barren. Too much pain and heartache have fertilized the earth on which we stand. We here solemnly swear, this shall not be in vain. Out of this, and from the suffering and sorrow of those who mourn this, will come, we promise, the birth of a new freedom for the sons of men everywhere.
To that we can only say Amen.