True Meaning of Memorial Day

True Meaning of Memorial Day

memorial_dayMemorial Day approaches.  For many, Memorial Day is nothing but an extra day off from work, or a long weekend chance to get together with family and friends, laugh and chat over a hot barbeque and cold beer, and launch the summer season in style.   Considering how hard people work these days and how precious time off is, I totally get it.

Also, I’m no fan of war, but then, neither are most warriors.  I believe that war is what you do when you’ve run out of options.  I also know that this is Earth, and history is rife with just cause for self defense, and the best defense is often a good offense.   The sad fact is that war is sometimes necessary, and when it is,  when the call goes out to stand up and fight, those who answer the call do so, for the most part, because they want to do what is right.

So the true meaning of Memorial Day is somber and sobering.  The purpose of the holiday is to remember those men and women who, while serving our nation in the armed forces, made the ultimate sacrifice.  In this blog post, I’ll tell you some of the history of the day, and what you can do to make Memorial Day something more than just another holiday weekend.

A Little History

There are competing claims about the birthplace of Memorial Day. and it existed informally long before it became an official ‘holiday.’   It was born, no doubt, out of small gatherings to honor the war dead in cities and towns across the nation following the Civil War.  The first official proclamation came on May 5, 1868, when General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Repulic, issued his General Order No. 11,

“…gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with choicest flowers of springtime….let us in this solemn presence renew our pledges to aid and assist those whom they have left among us as sacred charges upon the Nation’s gratitude,–the soldier’s and sailor’s widow and orphan.” –General John Logan, General Order No. 11, 5 May 1868

Memorial Day was first observed on May 30 of that same year, when the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery were decorated with flowers.  Still, the nothern and southern states involved in the conflict were still at odds, and held their remembrances on different days.

World War 1 marked a turning point in the evolution of the day, when for the first time both southern and northern states remembered their fallen soldiers on the same day, making it about coming together and reconciling differences in honor of those who had given everything in service to the nation.

In 1915, John McCrae penned the poem, In Flanders Fields.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.

The ritual wearing of red poppies on Memorial Day came about when Moina Michael, inspired by this poem, added these words:

We cherish too, the Poppy red

That grows on fields where valor led,

It seems to signal to the skies

That blood of heroes never dies.

Moina Michael had the idea to wear the red poppies now associated with the holiday, and to sell them in order to raise the money to contribute to servicemen and servicewomen in need.  This actually caught on in the world beyond our shores, thanks to a French visitor, Madam Guerin, who observing this, returned to her own country and began making artificial red flowers to raise funds for those orphaned and widowed by war.  In 1922, the VFW began selling poppies nationally.  A couple of years later, disabled veterans went to work making the artificial flowers for fund raising on Memorial Day.

What Changed?

Sadly, many Americans have no idea about the meaning of Memorial Day or its traditions.  Graves are ignored, forgotten and neglected.  Parades are few and far between.  And some folks just assume that it’s a day for remembering everyone who has died, and even in this, they fail to attend to the remembrance.   This is, I gather, a response to an act of Congress, in 1971, when Memorial Day was folded into a three day weekend in the National Holiday Act.

In December of 2000, a resolution for a National Moment of Remembrance was passed by Congress to help remind Americans of the true meaning of Memorial Day. At 3 p.m. local time,  all Americans are called upon

“To 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.”

How our world has changed.  Now, just asking for a moment, instead of a day, is considered significant.  But it is a step in the right direction.   After all, for the sacrifice that was made, ought we not be at least a moment’s worth of grateful?

I remember classmates who died in Vietnam.  Family who died in the two world wars and Korea.  Neighbors and children of my neighbors who will never return from the middle east.   Though you and I may take issue with the faults and failings of our government, with the willingness of those who have never served to sacrifice those who willingly did serve, still, I have no issue with those who answer the call, who stand and serve, who risk it all so that you and I may live in freedom.   In these brave souls, we have much to be grateful for.  Memorial Day reminds us to stand together in memory and gratitude, and in this way binds us all together in both love and loss.

What You Can Do

You can visit a cemetery and place flags or flowers on the graves of the fallen

You can fly the U.S. flag at half-staff until noon

You can give some support to orphans, widows and widowers of the dead.

And you can participate, at 3pm local time, in a moment of remembrance and gratitude.

You can listen to an mp3 of TAPS by clicking here.

Lastly, may I recommend a wonderful Memorial Day blog memorial, put together by my friend Steve Kayser.  It moved me, and I believe it will move you deeply too.

Be safe, be well, be grateful.  On this very day, our men and women in uniform are risking, and all too often laying down, their lives for you.  Take time to notice. Take time to give thanks.  Take time to remember.  I’ll not be posting on Monday, the 31st, but will be back for my regular post a week later.