Today, we took the kids to the Dallas-Fort Worth National Cemetery for the Memorial Day Ceremonies. It was a beautiful service, and it’s such a privilege to witness such observances. My boys, in particular, asked lots of questions and the day was full of teachable moments for them as well as for me. “Why do we guard the flag?” “What do all these symbols mean?” “Who is this monument for?” “Why do they shoot cannons?” Thank you, smartphone. Particularly touching was the empty chair set out for James Stone, a Medal of Honor recipient who was normally an honored guest at the ceremonies there. He passed away this past fall.
Suburban life away from any military bases can lead us to be isolated from the sacrifices that military members and their families make daily for us. I think it’s important to take any opportunities we are afforded to emphasize what we owe to those who lay down their lives to guard and protect our nation. Because we have conflated Memorial Day with a “kick off the summer” weekend, I think it’s important to step back and remember just what we are observing.
Memorial Day grew out of “Decoration Days”, when communities would tend and decorate the graves of loved ones who died in the Civil War, generally on days during the spring when flowers were sure to be in bloom. The first formal recognition of the day came from General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Republic Army, who ordered flowers be placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers on May 30, 1868. While this date became the formal date for Decoration Days in the North, Southern states chose to honor their dead on a different day. The wounds of war heal slowly. After World War I, May 30 became a nationally observed Memorial Day honoring all war dead.
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“We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. . . Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.” From Gen. Logan’s General Order 11.
In 1971, Congress declared it an official national holiday and moved it to the last Monday in May, ensuring a three day weekend every year. Now it seems the solemn occasion of Memorial Day is marked primarily with barbecues and pool openings. There was a push by the late Senator Daniel Inouye to move the observation back to May 30, instead of tacking it on to a weekend, making it less about honoring the fallen and more about a long weekend.
That makes a lot of sense to me. This is a day that ought to be set apart. After all, we celebrate Veteran’s Day on November 11, whatever day of the week that happens to fall. If Memorial Day is truly about honoring those who have paid the highest price, then we should disconnect it from lighthearted celebrations of summer. However, we don’t need leading from Congress to pause and be grateful for the men and women who paid the highest price for our freedom. To those who sacrificed, and to those they left behind, thank you. We will never forget.