Reflections on Memorial Day

(Some of you may have noticed that I have taken a break from writing these columns for a few weeks.  Well, break’s over, and it’s time to get started again.  Thanks for reading!)

This past Monday, America celebrated Memorial Day.  I’ve been thinking about that, and wanted to share some thoughts.

Memorial Day is NOT national barbecue day.  And it’s not a time for the linen sale at the mall, nor for the opening of the city’s swimming pools, nor the unofficial start of summer.  It may have taken on some or all of those meanings, but that is not why it exists as a special day.

Memorial Day was originally known as “Decoration Day,” and originated during the Civil War.  Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, claims to have started the tradition, when local ladies decorated the graves of war dead with flowers on July 4, 1864.  Unfortunately for their claim, there are several documented cases in Virginia, Georgia, and elsewhere, of similar observances in 1861 and 1862.

To further add to the confusion, President Johnson signed a proclamation in 1967, naming Waterloo, New York, as the birthplace of Memorial Day.  The truth is, it was such a good idea (and an obvious one), that it originated in several places, independent of each other, at about the same time.

Back in the days when families had private cemeteries, many Southern families would gather once a year in the spring or early summer to weed the grounds, repair any damages and place flowers on the graves.  This was often done in connection with a family reunion and “dinner on the grounds” at the cemetery – it was a way of retaining family connections with those who had gone before, and in my opinion, a lovely custom.  (My good friend Joel Fox has told me of attending his family’s cemetery get-togethers, and I always thought it was a nice tradition.)

So, it wasn’t a big stretch to go from such occurrences to placing flowers on the graves of those lost in the war.

One of biggest early celebrations of the day came in Charleston, South Carolina, on May 1, 1865, when nearly 10,000 recently-freed African-Americans came together to honor the hundreds of Union soldiers who had died in a POW camp there.

The term “Memorial Day” was apparently first used in the 1880s, and both terms seem to have been used until after World War II.  However, it was not until 1967 that “Memorial Day” became an official Federal holiday – originally set for May 30, and later changed to the last Monday in May.  Some localities still hold their observances on May 30, which is coming up tomorrow as I write this.

Memorial Day should not be confused with Veterans Day, which comes on November 11. (That was previously known as “Armistice Day,” and originally marked the end of hostilities of World War I in 1918, but that’s another story.)  Memorial Day honors those who have died in the service of their country; Veterans Day honors the service of all military veterans.  Both are appropriate, but they are not the same, and should not be thought of as interchangeable.  (Thanks to Woody Turnbow for helping me appreciate this distinction!)

Besides honoring the sacrifice of those who have died, Memorial Day has also been a time of asking the larger questions of the cause for which they died.  In the late 19th and early 20th century, for example, the day was often used to decorate the graves of the Southern Civil War dead, and to promote the “Lost Cause” of Southern independence.

The day can be divisive and hurtful to some.  For some, it is a time to mourn the waste of so many lives and the loss that represents; for others, it is a time to celebrate liberty and promote patriotic values.  So what are we celebrating?  Manifest Destiny and American Exceptionalism?  Or the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave?

It’s a good question, I think.

On the larger issue of remembering, here are just two Biblical truths to consider.  First, go read the book of Deuteronomy, and notice how many times Moses commands the Israelites to “remember” during his farewell address – by my count, 16 times, or about once every other chapter.  You definitely come away from that heartfelt speech with the sense that he wanted them to hold onto and cherish the thoughts of all that God had done for them, and to live accordingly.

Second, in the first chapter of Romans, when Paul is making his list of all the depravities of which unredeemed humanity is possible, notice that it all begins with the refusal to remember or give thanks to God for His many blessings.  As he says, “They did not think it was worth their time to retain the knowledge of God” – sounds to me like a failure to remember.

Draw your own conclusions, my friends.

In my opinion, Memorial Day should not be used as a way of glorifying war, or whipping up some misguided patriotic fervor for a cause some may wish to promote.  But it IS appropriate to remember those who have given “that last full measure of devotion,” who have “laid down their life for their friends,” and “who have died that this nation may live.”

It IS appropriate to ask if I am honoring their sacrifice not just with flowers or parades, but with a well-lived life.

And it is appropriate to remember the awful cost of war, and the terrible price paid by the families and loved ones.  My grandmother Sallie McMillan had a brother who was killed in Korea, and I think she grieved his loss to her dying day.

So, to honor those who have given their lives for this country, and to their families:

O beautiful for heroes proved

In liberating strife,

Who more than self, their country loved,

And mercy more than life.

America!  America!  May God thy gold refine,

‘Til all success be nobleness, and ev’ry gain divine.

2 thoughts on “Reflections on Memorial Day

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