Memorial Day is a special holiday, and not just because it honors those who gave their lives for our nation. It was a spontaneous holiday that came about because it seemed necessary more than politically expedient. There was little official about it until long after it was part of our national calendar.
It started with some obscurity with unclear in its origins. The hundreds of thousands of graves of soldiers killed in the Civil War seemed to deserve a little sprucing up once a year as a way to honor their sacrifice. Weeds were cleared, flowers were placed, and a small flag was set to decorate the graves of those who made the ultimate sacrifice. “Decoration Day”, as it became known, apparently started even before the war was over in some places. The time of year was picked simply because the start of summer was when the earth itself was renewing.
The first declaration of a national holiday came in 1868. The Grand Army of the Republic, a Union veteran’s organization that maintained a military structure, called on all its members to have a unified Decoration Day on the last Monday of May. They had an enormous amount of political pull, so the celebrations were held across the North were often closely tied with government. It wasn’t until after WWI that the South observed the same Decoration Day. The day and name “Memorial Day” wasn’t officially recognized by the Federal Government until 1967.
Lack of official recognition never stopped anyone in the United States, or at least it didn’t used to, so Memorial Day has long been one of our cherished traditions. I was once in Brownwood, Texas and saw the graves of the local cemetery carefully decorated with the appropriate flags. A US veteran got the stars and stripes, a Confederate veteran the stars and bars, and the veterans of the Texas War of Independence the lone star. One grave had all three, a fearsome sight that made me glad he wasn’t someone I had to deal with alive today.
It’s not just the tradition that makes this a holiday worth celebrating, however. It’s about doing what’s right by those living and dead. We do well to remember those who came before us and what they did to make the world the way it is. A few moments to recall that we are where we now for a very good reason, a reason far too often soaked with blood, does more than helps us to appreciate what we have. That spirit has gotten us through a lot, and it can get us through whatever challenges lie ahead.
It’s our turn now, and while we’re not generally called on to fight in war we are called on to take our turn and serve. Those under the white tombstones gave far more than what we’re being asked to give. The least we can do is keep their markers and spruced up. We shouldn’t remember them today because we are told to, we should do it because it’s the right thing to do. That, and so much more.