Memorial Day was originally observed on May 30th back when it was called Decoration Day, the Civil War era tradition instituted by Northern Army General John Logan who, in 1868 ordered that a day be set aside to decorate the graves of the war dead and to place flowers on the gravesites of comrades who died in defense of their country during the Civil War.
May 30th was chosen because it was the day when the most flowers were said to be in bloom in the old Civil War North.
Because Decoration Day was declared by a union general, many southern states refused to participate. Several of those states still observe Confederate Memorial Day.
Over 600,000 people died in the Civil War –two percent of the population. Two percent of today’s population would be well north of six million Americans.
The change from Decoration Day to Memorial Day was organic. By the late 19th century, people increasingly referred to it as Memorial Day since the purpose was to memorialize those who died, and most of the Civil War veterans had begun to pass away.
With World War I, the holiday became a day to honor all those who died in service to the country. While the alternative name of “Memorial Day” was first used in 1882 it only became more common after World War II. It wasn’t until Congress passed the Uniform Holiday Act in 1968, that “Memorial Day” became the official holiday name. When the law went into effect in 1971, we went from celebrating on the 30th to celebrating on the last Monday in May.
Memorial Day is unique among all American holidays: It’s the only holiday in which we honor the dead and the sacrifice of those who died for their country. It’s the most solemn day of the year, which we usually forget amidst the barbecues and the mattress sales. But it was already being celebrated as a picnic holiday as early as the 1890s.
Today, more than anything, Memorial Day is treated as a 3-day weekend that represents the unofficial start of summer. We get ad nauseum reports on how many millions of us will be traveling more than 50 miles to some vacation destination. Announcements proclaiming sales are ubiquitous (and incidentally, stores were crowded this weekend), as are references to barbecuing and grilling. It’s a party!
It makes you wonder not whether the American military is worthy of the nation for which it fights, but whether the nation for which it fights is worthy of the United States military.
How many of us this weekend took a moment to acknowledge the men and women who’ve given their lives to preserve the freedoms we enjoy. We may not have agreed with every engagement in which they were involved but they don’t make the decision, their civilian bosses, the politicians, do, and these soldiers selflessly gave of themselves to support their country. Is that an honorable thing? How could it not be?
In his Gettysburg Address, President Lincoln eloquently dedicated that battlefield “as a final resting place for those who gave their lives that that nation might live.” It’s a sublime humility that marks his movement into the final section: “But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate — we cannot consecrate — we cannot hallow — this ground” — and then, to the inexorable climax, in which Lincoln voices a sacred oath: “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us, that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.”
That’s the challenge of today: to define and embrace “the unfinished work.” This is a time of great unfinished work. Those who died in war did more than any of us now living to try to advance it. They left behind grieving mothers and fathers, broken-hearted children, tragically lonely friends. The least we can do is honor their memory by building a country and a world worthy of their courage. It’s questionable whether our leaders can direct that work, but I’m not sure we’re capable, either, especially if all we think about this weekend is buying a mattress and firing up the grill.