This coming Monday, May 31, is a national holiday. For some, it’s a chance to head out to the lake and maybe catch some crappie or bass. Some see it as a chance to soak up some sun. For auto racing fans, the weekend means it’s time for what is perhaps the most famous competition in motor sports – the Indianapolis 500. For many communities, it’s a time for patriotic parades, with flags, bands and floats. Some folks see it as a chance to fire up the grill and have family and friends over for a fun time. A lot of retailers have big sales, while other folks are happy just to have the day off. For many, it’s the unofficial start of summer.
All of those things are fine, and each can be appropriate in its place, but Memorial Day wasn’t originally designed for any of those things. And although the exact origins of the day have been lost to history, its intention is clear: to remember and honor those who have given their lives in defense of this country.
“Decoration Day” (as the day was originally known) began during and especially, immediately after, the American Civil War (or the War Between the States, if you prefer). Several communities, in both the North and the South, held ceremonies to decorate the graves of the Union and Confederate soldiers.
One of the earliest was on May 1, 1865, when a group of several thousand recently-freed slaves reburied with honors the remains of 257 Union soldiers who had died in a Confederate prison camp. The Ladies Memorial Association of Columbus (Georgia) established a program in the spring of 1866 to decorate the graves of soldiers throughout the south. Similar events had been happening in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, and elsewhere in the north.
In 1868, Union General John A. Logan issued a proclamation establishing “Decoration Day” to be held on May 30, annually and nationwide; Logan was the commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization made up of Union Civil War veterans. Some have claimed the date was chosen because it was not the anniversary of any specific battle, but instead could be universally recognized; others have suggested that it was chosen because it was the best date for flowers to bloom in the north.
There are more than 25 different communities that claim to be the founder of the observance. In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson signed a bill recognizing Waterloo, New York, as the “official” birthplace of the holiday a hundred years earlier, but the evidence for this is sketchy, at best. Rochester, Wisconsin, Doylestown, Pennsylvania, and Grafton, West Virginia, all host annual parades that have been continuously running since the 1860s. During the first half of the 20th century, the focus graduated shifted from exclusively honoring those who fell in the Civil War, to remembering all those who had died in our nation’s defense. The name “Memorial Day” was first used in 1882 and gradually became more common, especially after World War II; Congress made that the “official” name in 1967.
Then in 1968, as part of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, Congress changed the date from May 30, to the last Monday of May, which we still observe today. In 2000, they passed the National Moment of Remembrance Act, asking all Americans to pause at 3:00 pm, local time, and remember the fallen. The National American Legion has chosen to honor those who died by distributing and wearing red silk poppies – a tribute to the poem “In Flanders Fields,” about the flowers that grew over soldiers’ graves in World War I.
However you choose to observe the holiday, let us take a moment, each in our own way, to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice and the families they left behind. Let us pray for our nation and our leaders, and pray that the Lord will bring His peace on earth.
I’ll give the final word to British poet Rudyard Kipling, whose son was killed while fighting with the British army during World War I. In his poem Recessional, Kipling writes
The tumult and the shouting dies – The captains and the kings depart – Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice, An humble and contrite heart. Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet, Lest we forget – lest we forget!