Memorial Day weekend begins the unofficial start of summer. We are in a constant deluge of Memorial Weekend sales – one is able to purchase practically anything on sale this weekend, from cars and trucks to clothes, mattresses, and shoes. Do not forget that as the springboard for summer, there are beaches, beach parties, BBQs, boats and booze – all to be had for a long three-day weekend.
But before you pack you car / truck to go the beach or run to the store with a never-ending list of picnic and BBQ items, please take a moment to remember why we have this Federal holiday, Memorial Day.
Descended from the southern tradition of Decoration Day, Memorial Day is design to take a moment and pay homage those soldiers, now women as well as men, who have died while serving in the American military. Although there is debate as to where Memorial Day originated (Columbus, Georgia or Waterloo, New York) a day has been set aside as early as 1863. In this instance, scholar Carolyn E. Janney argues that women in Lynchburg, Virginia tended to the “graves of Confederate dead since the spring of 1863.” In my opinion, it does not matter where the first annual Memorial Day occurred, but more importantly, that we recognize and pay tribute to lives cut short.
Although there is a lot of historical controversy surrounding aspects of Memorial Day, ranging from where the battle dead are buried and reburied to commemorating the Lost Cause versus battlefield dead, we should also recognize that it is a day in which we can learn from the controversy and place focus on those that have died while serving.
In many cases, the men that died wished to have returned home to enjoy what we do on a daily basis: family, friends, spouses, pets, children, the sun shining in their face. Memorial day is one day out our busy lives designed to slow us down and show a little bit of gratitude. What is important is that time is indeed taken to tend to the graves, decorate them with flowers and remember the sacrifices of the fallen men and women in our American military.
We recognize that these service personnel died so that we could enjoy the freedoms that can be so easily taken for granted, freedom of life, liberty, religion, and personal choice. We live in a country that whether you dislike or support our political leaders, we can voice it in a variety of measures.
Take a moment to remember not only the soldiers and sailors from the American Civil War (ranked highest in deaths, 498,332), or those from World War I and World War II, Korean War and the Vietnam War, but more recently, the Gulf War (second in death rate with 1,565; smallest at 1,000 is the Indian Wars), and the Global War on Terror.
Also remember, that with many of the wars from the 20th century, there still remains the family that have learned to live with loss. For parents, spouses and children who have lost someone, Memorial Day is so much more than sales at the mall and pool parties. Each day they experience a loss that frankly, is difficult to imagine. For them, and I am only guessing here, but each day can be a memorial day.
So, for the service personnel that are buried in National Cemeteries such as Arlington or Hampton Roads Cemetery and those that are interred in private and public cemeteries, take a moment, visit a cemetery, go to gravesite or memorial ceremony. The City of Norfolk sponsors a Memorial Day Ceremony as well as an adopt-a-grave program , or email us, if you are interested continuing this tradition. It is the very least we can do.
Recommended reading on Memorial Day (this is but a very short list):
Burying the Dead but not the Past: Ladies Memorial Association & the Lost Cause, Caroline E. Janney, 2008
Monuments to the Lost Cause: Women, Art, and the Landscapes of Southern Memory, edited by Cynthia Mills and Pamela H. Simpson, 2003
Sacred Relics: Pieces of the Past in Nineteenth Century America, Teresa Barnett, 2013
Standing Soldier, Kneeling Slave: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America, Kirk Savage, 1997
The Genesis of the Memorial Day Holiday in America, Daniel Bellware & Richard Gardiner, Ph.D., 2014
This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, Drew Gilpin Faust, 2008