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Remembering the meaning of Memorial Day

By Michael M. Bates
web posted May 30, 2005

What does Memorial Day stand for? A day off? The start of summer? Parades and picnics? The opening of public swimming pools? You can -- finally! -- start wearing white shoes again?

If public opinion surveys are accurate, most Americans don't know much about Memorial Day's purpose or history. That's a pity because it removes an important bond with those brave men, and women, who have given their lives in our Nation's service.

Decorating the graves of fallen Civil War soldiers took place in several states during that catastrophic conflict. Shortly after the war, General John A. Logan, who headed an organization of Union veterans called the Grand Army of the Republic,, issued a general order designating a day:

". . . 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 churchyard in the land."

During the first observance of what was then termed Decoration Day, the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers in Arlington were adorned with flowers as the thousands of participants said prayers and sang hymns.

Southern states weren't quick to embrace Decoration Day. Perhaps the people there couldn't cotton to an observance at least partially established by Union veterans.

Certainly General Logan's citing of "the late rebellion" had to have been a problem. Many Southerners didn't see the confrontation as a rebellion.

They viewed it, as some still do, as the war of Northern aggression or the war for Southern independence or maybe the war between equal and sovereign states or something like that. If they, rather than the Yankees, had prevailed and written the history of the struggle, maybe that's how we'd characterize it today.

So several Southern states set aside their own days to honor the Confederate dead. Confederate Decoration Day, for example, is still celebrated each June 3rd in Tennessee.

After World War I, the national Decoration Day became Memorial Day. The commemoration was expanded to include those who died in all U.S. wars.

This made the observance more acceptable in the South. Most states, in accordance with federal law, officially celebrate Memorial Day on the last Monday in May.

Three-day weekends are, in theory at least, OK, but I have to think that they erode a holiday's significance. In 1968, Congress debated the wisdom of moving several public holidays to Monday.

Writer Bill Kaufmann in The American Enterprise Online quotes a Tennessee congressman at the time as saying, "If we do this, 10 years from now our schoolchildren will not know what February 22 means. They will not know or care when George Washington was born. They will know that in the middle of February they will have a three-day weekend for some reason. This will come."

It has. And similarly Memorial Day, like other celebrations uprooted from their fixed dates, has lost much of its import for many of us fortunate enough to live in this blessed land.

That's not the only reason, of course. Lots of folks prefer to keep suffering and death out of their thoughts as much as possible. It's more fun concentrating on the start of summer or picnics or something else.

More than a million American fighting men and women have given, as Lincoln termed it at Gettysburg, the last full measure of devotion. Their valor and sacrifice made possible our freedoms, our values, our very existence.

Memorial Day should be a time of solemn reflection on some of the most sacred of human ideals: Faith, family, duty, commitment, heroism and honor. We are so profoundly indebted to all those soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen who have given their lives defending us.

A few years ago Congress passed the National Moment of Remembrance Act. It asked Americans to pause for one minute at 3:00 p.m. local time and think about those who have made the ultimate sacrifice.

It may seem like a small gesture, but it's a way to, however briefly, keep faith with those heroes and maintain a tradition worth keeping.

Mike Bates is the author of Right Angles and Other Obstinate Truths. This essay appeared in the May 26, 2005 Oak Lawn (IL) Reporter.

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