Remembering is usually a good thing, even though not all memories are pleasant. Usually we have to consciously exercise our remembering mechanism, activating almost without thought the extraordinary search engine in our brains.
Many will do so on Memorial Day — which is observed on the last Monday of May in most states. Observed since 1868 following the Civil War, it is a day to remember those who died in the service of America. Gen. John Logan, national commander of the Army of the Republic, proclaimed the first Memorial Day would be commemorated on May 30, 1868. Flowers were ordered placed on the graves of every Union and Confederate soldier in Arlington National Cemetery.
Historical evidence suggests that many memorial traditions sprang up in various areas of the country years before Gen. Logan issued his famous proclamation. In 1873, New York became the first state to adopt the national holiday, and soon other Northern states followed suit. Historians suggest that Southern states marked the occasion on a separate day until after World War I.
One website that is a good source of information on the observance, its beginning and its background is usmemorialday.org. Even though Northern and Southern states took generations to get on the same page with the day’s observance, the point was not to stay apart. “Memorial Day is not about division,” says the website. “It is about reconciliation; it is about coming together to honor those who gave their all.”
It is appropriate to take note of those who sacrificed their lives for country and for the noblest ideals of their nation. Not all are willing to entertain such service or sacrifice. To place one’s self in harm’s way for the good of others is a powerful act of selflessness. Expressions of thanks for the dead and to their families always are appropriate.
Many American military fallen lie in graves on foreign battlefields. Traditionally, these cemeteries and memorials have been beautifully maintained in gratitude for the sacrifice of Americans and others in places like Europe and other theaters of war. One cannot not help but be moved by the site of thousands of simple white crosses of remembrance and gratitude, each standing at attention in perfect formation in France, Belgium, Italy, Tunisia and many other places.
We are reminded that we celebrate the people, their patriotism and their commitment to high ideals. But we rightly do not celebrate war or the weapons of war. At best, armed conflict between nations or groups within nations is a necessary evil. At worst, some wars are unnecessary — period.
Regardless of how we feel about a particular conflict, we can commemorate sacrifice unto death. Most people never get around to living for a cause, much less dying for one. We honor those who do.
Citizens have broadly expanded the original Memorial Day beyond commemorating the lives of soldiers who sacrificed their lives in defense of the United States. Widows and widowers and other surviving relatives make annual visits to the graves of loved ones, regardless of the cause of death, carefully leaving cut flowers, plants or artificial sprays. In communities large and small across the nation, cemeteries bloom in remembrance and reverence on Memorial Day.
The inclusion of others who have passed away is a natural progression of the day first observed at a national level 142 years ago.
Each of us stands on the shoulders of others, whether in the development of faith, family forebears, fallen soldiers or long-dead public servants. Remembering them helps inspire those of us still around to live life better. We all have people we can never forget, particularly those whose influence on our lives has been positive.
That said, for many Americans the day will not be one of remembering others’ sacrifices. They will receive a reprieve from their daily work on May 31 and will see it simply as that — a day off, a much-needed holiday. Memorial Day has become known as the official kickoff for summer recreation. That’s when public swimming pools officially open and the season for family vacations begins. That is about the time school comes to a close for the summer. Memorial Day Weekend will be one in which many people will travel; some will be careless. Newspapers and news stations will report on Memorial Day observances and announce the number of accident fatalities once the weekend is finished.
Regardless of your plans for the day and the weekend, set aside moments for recalling the sacrifices of others and give thanks. Express gratitude for those who are still a part of your life. Re-commit to being the kind of person who will influence and serve others positively.
And by all means, be careful in your weekend comings and goings.
Bill Webb is editor of Word&Way.