Memorial Day   4 comments

This was a difficult topic for me to tackle because I think I have a non-traditional view of Memorial Day.

I have to admit that when I was a little kid, we celebrated Memorial Day, but not as a day commemorating soldiers. Apparently, when my mother was young (Great Depression), people used to focus much more on remembering all folks who had died rather than just soldiers. My dad, who was a bit of a anti-war guy, used to help with the annual clean up of the cemetery on or about Memorial Day. I’m thinking Dad was not commemorating soldiers since he didn’t think of them as heroes.

It really wasn’t until it became a national Monday holiday in 1972 that I became aware of it as a military-themed holiday.

The practice of decorating soldiers’ graves with flowers is an ancient custom that was observed in the US before and during the American Civil War. 

Following President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865, there were a variety of events of commemoration. More than 600,000 died in the Civil War, so the sheer number of soldiers on both sides meant that burial and memorialization took on new cultural significance. The first widely publicized observance of a Memorial Day-type observance after the Civil War was in Charleston, South Carolina, on May 1, 1865. During the war, Union prisoners of war had been held in Charleston. At least 257 Union prisoners died and were hastily buried in unmarked graves. Teachers, missionaries, and black residents of Charleston organized a May Day ceremony in 1865, which was covered by several national papers. The freedmen cleaned up and landscaped the burial ground, building an enclosure and an arch labeled “Martyrs of the Race Course”. Nearly 10,000 people, mostly freedmen, gathered on May 1 to commemorate the Union war dead.

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Copying this practice General A Logan as commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic issued a proclamation calling for “Decoration Day to be observed annually and nationwide. It was observed for the first time on May 30, 1868. The date was chosen because it was NOT the anniversary of any particular battle. It was also the May 30 date was chosen as the optimal date for flowers to be in bloom.

Memorial Day speeches became an occasion for veterans, politicians, and ministers to commemorate the War and, at first, to rehash the “atrocities” of the enemy. They mixed religion and celebratory nationalism and provided a means for the people to make sense of their history in terms of sacrifice for a better nation. People of all religious beliefs joined together and the point was often made that the German and Irish soldiers had become true Americans in the “baptism of blood” on the battlefield.

 

The day of observance varied, especially in the South, and it was traditionally known as “Decoration Day” until after World War II. In 1968, Congress the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which moved four holidays from their traditional dates to a specified Monday in order to create a convenient three-day weekend. The change moved Memorial Day from its traditional May 30 date to the last Monday in May. The law took effect at the federal level in 1971. My parents were highly irritated by this move, feeling that memorializing the war dead was something that should be voluntary and private. After some initial confusion and unwillingness to comply, all 50 states adopted Congress’ change of date within a few years.

Perhaps because of the tenure of the times (Vietnam era), Memorial Day quickly devolved into a “beginning of summer” holiday. The Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) advocates returning to the original date. The VFW stated in a 2002 Memorial Day Address:

Changing the date merely to create three-day weekends has undermined the very meaning of the day. No doubt, this has contributed a lot to the general public’s nonchalant observance of Memorial Day.[47]

From 1987 until his death in 2012, Hawaii’s Senator Daniel Inouye, a World War II veteran, annually introduced a measure to return Memorial Day to its traditional date.

On Memorial Day, the US flag is supposed to be briskly raised to the top of the staff and then solemnly lowered to the half-staff position, where it remains only until noon. It is then supposed be raised to full-staff for the remainder of the day.

The half-staff position remembers the more than one million men and women who gave their lives in service of their country. At noon, their memory is raised by the living, who resolve not to let their sacrifice be in vain, but to rise up in their stead and continue the fight for liberty and justice for all.

 

For many Americans, the central event is attending one of the thousands of parades held on Memorial Day in large and small cities all over the country. Most of these feature marching bands and an overall military theme with the National Guard and other servicemen participating along with veterans and military vehicles from various wars. In 2000, Congress passed the National Moment of Remembrance Act, asking people to stop and remember at 3:00 P.M. This has been so successful that I didn’t know it existed until I started researching Memorial Day to write this column.

 

 

Growing up, my only clear memory of Memorial Day was that poppies. In 1915, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, a physician with the Canadian Expeditionary Force, wrote the poem, “In Flanders Fields“. Its opening lines refer to the fields of poppies that grew among the soldiers’ graves in Flanders.In 1918, inspired by the poem, Moina Michael attended a YWCA Overseas War Secretaries’ conference wearing a silk poppy pinned to her coat and distributed over two dozen more to others present. In 1920, the National American Legion adopted it as their official symbol of remembrance.

 

Maybe it’s because I have a deep Christian faith, but I agree with scholars, like sociologist Robert Bellah who argue that the United States has a secular “civil religion” – one with no association with any religious denomination or viewpoint – that has incorporated Memorial Day as a sacred event. With the Civil War, a new theme of death, sacrifice and rebirth entered the civil religion. Memorial Day gave ritual expression to these themes, integrating the local community into a sense of nationalism. Americans borrowed from different religious traditions so that the average American sees no conflict between the two, and deep levels of personal motivation are aligned with attaining national goals.

As a Christian, I object to this sort of co-opting of faith in the interest of nationalism. I don’t generally celebrate Memorial Day specifically as a commemoration of the war dead. Fairbanks doesn’t have a militaristic parade (with a short summer, we save our energy for the Golden Days Parade in July) and Brad won’t go to the town picnic. For many years, we planted our garden on Memorial Day, but my nephew was killed in a car accident on Memorial Day weekend more than 20 years ago, so we are usually reminded of that on this weekend. We have an annual family bike ride we do to visit the three local cemeteries. Mom and nephew Mike are at one. It’s really more of a commemoration that the local bike paths are clean of snow and traction pebbles. I tell a funny story about Mom or Mike so our kids know something about them and then we move on.

My father’s ashes were interred at another cemetery. Several years ago, the City relocated those urns out to a field with markers. Dad would not be happy that we visit annually (it’s Brad’s fault that we care about your mortal remains at all, Dad — I know how you felt about that), but he would LOVE that the only flowers ever on his grave is the wild rose bush that happily grows there. The City has asked a couple of times if we want “the weed” removed. Our answer is always “NO!” It’s exactly the sort of benign neglect my dad wanted for eternity. I usually commemorate that stop with one of Dad’s anti-war Merchant Marine stories. I think he’d be very honored by that.

We complete our 20-mile bike ride by stopping at the historic cemetery where all the old pioneers are buried. We follow my parents’ long-time tradition of having a picnic in honor of the volunteers who keep the cemetery neat. Some years, the caretaker joins us. I knew a few of the people who are buried there. I think the kids are growing weary of my Eva McGown stories.

I know some people might be upset by my ambivalence toward a secular “religious-like” holiday, but I’m just not convinced that God would approve of many of the wars we become involved in. I’m not certain that those who die while dealing death (often against populations that don’t have equivalent technology to the US) are going to be welcomed with open arms by the God that gave us the command “Don’t kill.” I’m not a pacifist. There are times when violence is the only appropriate and effective response. I also believe that God forgives those who approach Him with a contrite heart.

So, ambivalent … but I do take a pause to think about these things and that pause comes most clearly when I watch my fellow Americans commemorating the war dead without ever taking that pause themselves.

Just my thoughts on the topic. I invite you to think on that topic today.

4 responses to “Memorial Day

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  1. Thanks for sharing this. I had no idea Memorial Day existed in the US. We have a Spring Bank holiday here in the UK today.

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