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Monday, May 28, 2012

Memorial Day: A Time for Commemoration, Not Celebration

I was listening to WLW radio on Saturday, and the talk show host was discussing the holiday of Memorial Day and extolling the need to thank all veterans, past and present, for their service to the country. I respect and appreciate the service of all people in the armed forces, but I thought that commemoration of Memorial Day had a special and significant purpose. I think many folks have lost sight of the reason Americans should observe the national holiday.

Memorial Day began after the Civil War, to honor the fallen. In 1868, General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, officially proclaimed Memorial Day as a day to place flowers on the graves of all soldiers, Union and Confederate, at Arlington National Cemetery.

Memorial Day is not about division. It is about reconciliation; it is about coming together to honor those who gave their all. It was originally known as Decoration Day and celebrated on May 30.

Memorial Day also began in the South after the Civil War. Freed slaves gathered at mass graves of Union Soldiers and reburied them in proper cemeteries. In the years that followed, they would have picnics in the cemetery and care for the grounds as a community. The men and women, still bearing their slave names, cared for the nameless soldiers that died for them in an area that was at best indifferent to both of them.

The first state to officially recognize the holiday was New York in 1873. By 1890 it was recognized by all of the northern states. The South refused to acknowledge the day, honoring their dead on separate days until after World War I (when the holiday changed from honoring just those who died fighting in the Civil War to honoring Americans who died fighting in any war).

After World War I, it became a day to honor those who died in all American wars. A 1971 act of Congress made Memorial Day a national holiday, to be celebrated on the last Monday of every May.

It is now celebrated in almost every State on the last Monday in May (passed by Congress with the National Holiday Act of 1971 (P.L. 90 - 363) to ensure a three day weekend for Federal holidays), though several southern states have an additional separate day for honoring the Confederate war dead: January 19 in Texas, April 26 in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi; May 10 in South Carolina; and June 3 (Jefferson Davis' birthday) in Louisiana and Tennessee.

This editorial published in The Oklahoman on May 30, 1912, refers to those who died in the Civil War, but the message the anonymous writer expresses of honoring the dead and the hope for peace still rings true.

“Today a mighty nation pauses to put wreaths on the graves of soldiers. It is a day of thoughts that pertain to the bivouac of the dead.

Flags will be displayed at half mast; mourning will be in use; bells will toll.

Over on the hill where marble shafts mark the resting place of those who fell in the conflict where brother was arrayed against brother, flowers will be placed. The living will not forget the dead.
It is a day of sorrow. The older among us can realize the horrors which the day recalls. The younger generation cannot understand.

Today we should be reminded of peace. If the peace movement had been as strong in 1860 as it is today the nation would not have been plunged into civil strife. Memorial Day should impress upon us the horrors of war, it should make that impression so deep that the peace of the world will be assured.”

What may be needed to return the solemn, and even sacred, spirit back to Memorial Day is for a return to its traditional day of observance. Many feel that when Congress made the day into a three-day weekend in with the National Holiday Act of 1971, that act made it all the easier for people to be distracted from the spirit and meaning of the day. In truth, many now see Memorial Day as National Cookout Day or The Official First Day of Summer.

As the VFW stated in its 2002 Memorial Day address: "Changing the date merely to create three-day weekends has undermined the very meaning of the day. No doubt, this has contributed greatly to the general public's nonchalant observance of Memorial Day."

On Memorial Day we need to stop and pay with sincere conviction our respects for those who died protecting and preserving the freedoms we enjoy, for we owe those honored dead more than we can ever repay. From the beginning, Memorial Day is a day for reflection and reconciliation, not a day for celebration.

As a grateful nation, we should make a solemn effort to decorate all the graves of our fallen heroes, the victims of all past American wars. Do we even consider the importance of this commemoration now? How many graves of our fallen do we in America leave dishonored by leaving their resting places forgotten and neglected? We should take Memorial Day to honor those who have gone before us, set a tradition and share it with our children. Traditions can inspire and inspiring patriotism is an American tradition that we should not break -- they can remind us to seek ever greater means of preserving peace.

Sergeant Ben Hartford said these words while delivering the Memorial Day address during an assembly at his old high school in 2012:

"America has recently found it hard to be somber, solemn and grateful. Once upon a time, we could muster more than a moment of silence. There are many cultures around the world where memorials play a big part of civic life. Central Asian countries have cemeteries that can be seen for miles because of all the colorful flags flying that can signify life accomplishments, family, tribe, religion and how death was met. In America, we shy away from cemeteries; perhaps we don't want to be reminded of the easily frayed this mortal coil can become. But cemeteries and remembering the dead can also teach us how strong this chain of life can be."

We have Veterans Day, an annual United States holiday observed on November 11. And, we also have Armed Forces Day, presently observed the third Saturday of May. Those days can serve to honor all veterans. Memorial Day has a definite, important purpose reserved for those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.

At the very least, this Memorial Day, we should honor our war dead by observing, the “National Moment of Remembrance” resolution that was passed on December 2000. This resolution asks this:

At 3 p.m. local time all Americans "voluntarily and informally observe in their own way a Moment of Remembrance and Respect, pausing from whatever they are doing for a moment of silence or listening to ‘Taps.'”

Hopefully, this will help everyone remember and reflect on the sacrifices made by so many to provide freedom for all.

To assist you in remembering on Memorial Day, here is "Taps."

A fitting end to your Memorial Remembrace -- "Amazing Grace"

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