*Johnstown Tribune-Democrat, May 13, 2008
*Clinton, IA Herald, 5/12/2008
Copyright © 2008 by Ralph Couey
If you were to ask a stranger, particularly a younger one, the question “What is Memorial Day?” its likely you receive the answer, “The official beginning of summer.” It’s a natural answer, borne out of the timing of the holiday, since it coincides with the end of the school year in most parts of the country. The real meaning of Memorial Day has been somewhat lost in the shuffle, a victim of cultural amnesia, or perhaps just neglect.
In 1868, General John Logan, commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, a fraternal organization of Union Civil War Veterans, proclaimed May 30th as the day “…designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet church-yard in the land.” Initially, it was known as “Decoration Day.” The first state to officially recognize the commemoration was New York in 1873, and by 1890 it was so recognized by all of the former Union states. The south, not surprisingly, refused to acknowledge the day, keeping to their own schedule for honoring the Confederate war dead, a tradition that continues to this day.
However, after World War I, the meaning of the day was changed to honor Americans who died fighting in all wars. Memorial Day was made official in 1971 by congress, adjusting the day to the last Monday in May.
On Memorial Day, we remember the fallen. For far too many families, there was no joyous homecoming; only the memories of the loved and the lost. There are no possible words, no magic phrases that could possibly ease their pain. For the husband or wife looking at a wedding ring through a veil of tears; for the parents who stood in the doorway of a silent, empty bedroom; for the child who struggled to understand why Daddy or Mommy didn’t come home; for the friends, the co-workers, the neighbors who have felt that aching void in their lives; for all of them, we as a nation have shared their grief. For some 4,000 very special reasons, this Memorial Day should be cherished by all.
We all mourn their loss. However, we must also celebrate their lives. For in the too-short time they were here, they touched and honored us all. That is a gift worth celebrating. All over this country there are memorials of granite and marble to those who have given their lives for freedom. But I’ve always felt that the best memorial to those who went before is the sense of purpose in the lives of those who continue on. If we take the best of what they were and make it the best of what we can be, then a part of those who sacrificed will continue to live on through us. That memorial is not only important to us as individuals; it is absolutely vital to us as a nation.
To say that much of the original intent of Memorial Day has become neglected is to engage in understatement. Starting with Vietnam, war became solely a political issue instead of an act in defense of freedom or an element of national survival. And with that fundamental change, even the simple act of honoring those who, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, “…gave their lives so that this nation might live” became soiled with the stain of partisan politics.
While most of us will revel in recreational activities this weekend, others will go about the duty of remembrance, quietly and without fanfare or publicity. They do this not for themselves, but to honor those whose sacrifice has honored America. If you look hard enough, you will see the fruit of those selfless labors; the beauty of fresh flowers, and a small forest of American flags. It is a renewal of the solemn promise made to those who were lost:
We will never forget.
Go to the cemeteries and memorials; walk among the graves and read the names. And whisper these words from Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain:
"Heroism is latent in every human soul, however humble or unknown. In great deeds something abides. On great fields something stays. Spirits linger, to consecrate the ground. And reverent men and women from afar, and generations that know us not, shall come to this field to ponder and dream; and the power of the vision will pass into their souls."
The issues that divide the people of the United States have become wounds that are deep and continue to fester. Many despair that we have turned a corner in our history; that we may never again truly be one nation, indivisible. Only time will tell. But whatever views one has on war in general, and the Global War on Terror in particular, we should still take the time this weekend to honor those who served, and who paid the ultimate price in the service of freedom. For if we forget the reasons they served, and the price they paid, rest assured America will almost certainly pay that price again. To paraphrase W.J. Cameron, on this Memorial Day:
“Perform, then, this one act of commemoration before this Day passes: