Memorial Day is a day set apart …
“Today I am pleased to sign S. 3181, the “National Moment of Remembrance Act,” which designates 3:00 p.m. local time on Memorial Day each year as the National Moment of Remembrance, in honor of the men and women of the United States who died in the pursuit of freedom and peace.”
President Bill Clinton – December 28, 2000
The idea of a unified day of remembrance for fallen warriors started just after the Civil War ended. From 1861 to 1865 (some say 1866), family members and friends fought against each other in the bloodiest war in all of American history.
I refrain from making any comment on that last sentence, and what I imagine it meant to each individual person, free or enslaved, each battle and skirmish. And their families. And our nation as a whole. And how the central issues affect us even to this day. It makes me weep to think on it.
The mortality toll was so devastating, to both Confederates and Federals, that towns started setting aside days, during the war, to remember all the men (women weren’t remembered at that time. :-/ ) who lost their lives in that war.
In May of 1868, three years after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered on April 9, 1865, a representative of Northern veterans of the Civil War called for May 30th to be set aside to decorate and cover with flowers the countless graves of people who had died in defense of their country during that bloody war. By then, almost every town in the newly reunited country, both North and South, had buried obscenely vast numbers of bodies. So many, that towns had trouble keeping up and national cemeteries became expedient for both sides.
Dubbed “Decoration Day”, May 30 was the date chosen because it was apparently not identified with any particular battle, making it a good day for nationwide observance.
Arlington National Cemetery recognized the first Decoration Day in 1868 by decorating 20,000 graves of both Federal and Confederate soldiers. That’s right. Twenty. Thousand. Graves. From one war. In one of many, many cemeteries.
Other cemeteries throughout the North participated on the same day and people continued to observe in years that followed. Eventually, almost all states declared a state holiday of remembrance.
Southern states continued to remember their dead independently from the official “Northern” date. Until World War I gave everyone a common enemy, and the South joined the rest of the country in commemorating on May 30th.
It was during World War I, that the United States expanded who was remembered on Memorial Day; from solely the Civil War to all American military people who perished in all wars.
By 1968, the United States became (what I consider) obsessed with creating long weekends for federal employees, and passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. Which resulted in many holidays being approximated to the nearest-ish Monday, including Memorial Day, which is now officially honored annually on the last Monday in the month of May.
Thus, Memorial Weekend was born. A time which continues to be solemn in its memory of all the United States of America’s military men and women who have given their lives for their country during a time of war.
In true American tradition, it has also become a time for blowout barbecue parties as we all get together to celebrate the “official” beginning of Summer. (With no regard for the fact Summer officially starts two-thirds of the way through June.)
Our sons, three of whom are veterans, don’t want to be thanked today. They survived. This is not their day.
However, they do take comfort in a loving phone call from us as they recall their friends who did give up their lives for this country. And all men and women who sacrificed themselves throughout our history.
There you have it …
That’s the purpose of Memorial Day.
So, what can we do to honor the spirit of the day? …
Well … in between the hot dogs and the beers, please keep a place in your heart to recall what this particular day is about. And at 3 pm today, wherever you are, be still for just a minute … and remember.
Many countries have special days to honor their dead and celebrate their living. See “Days of Remembrance Around the World” for just a few examples of what, when and how other nations observe their own “Memorial Days”.