Memorial Day, a truly important holiday in our calendar year, has been celebrated ever since the end of the American Civil War. Not only did the Civil War bring home stark realities about wartime and the true cost of peace, but it flamed in people’s hearts the need to honor their fallen soldiers. Approximately 600,000 men were killed during the entirety of the Civil War, meaning that almost everyone would have lost someone that they cared about, and this had a strong influence on the citizens of that time. It was the women who took on the initial task of decorating soldiers’ graves, a fact which does not surprise me.
A few different states claim to have the earliest decoration of a soldier’s grave, but something like that is really difficult to prove completely. Newspaper articles and documented information from various states, such as Virginia and Georgia, and most notoriously, Waterloo, New York, etc. have them linked as saying they were the first, but being the first matters very little compared to the gathering of people to honor the country’s fallen heroes. Originally called Decoration Day, it used to be held on May 30 for over a hundred years, from 1868 until 1971. This particular date was chosen because it was not an anniversary of a battle and it was considered a prime time to pick flowers for the adornment of the graves. Later, the importance of a three-day weekend took precedence, and so we now celebrate Memorial Day on the last Monday in May.
It’s important to remember the meaning behind this summer-opening holiday. If we go all of the way back to the American Revolution, the number of men and women who have sacrificed their lives in honor of their country is quite staggering. Freedom isn’t free; it is, I would suggest, the most expensive thing in this world. So take a minute or two out of your day to pause, to thank them, to pray for their families and loved ones. To be a soldier means to be a part of something bigger than yourself, to be in service, in many ways, to deny yourself and to live by and for respect.
“I have no illusions about what little I can add now to the silent testimony of those who gave their lives willingly for their country…. Yet we must try to honor them—not for their sakes alone, but for our own. And if words cannot repay the debt we owe these men, surely with our actions we must strive to keep faith with them and with the vision that led them to battle and to final sacrifice,” Ronald Reagan, Memorial Day, 1982.