Memorial Day…Decoration Day. This day goes back to the period following the Civil War when the women of those who died in battle championed a national day to honor the dead of war.
Decoration day. A day to visit the graveside of the soldier lost, decorate with flowers and eventually flags. Family members traveled far and wide to the graveside of their sons and fathers. They gathered, picnicked, and spent the day in celebration of courage and bravery.
So this ritual entered the canon of America’s civic religion of patriotism. Later called Memorial Day, it morphed into a day of togetherness, relaxation, picnics in the modern sense called barbecue, and a break from work to celebrate something bigger than ourselves, whether we realize it or not.
I survey the scene of flags across the cemetery decorating the graves of those who have died. As a child, we often came here. The women came. My father stayed at home since it was not his father who had died and was buried in this place. My grandfather’s grave was next to one of those great trees and cement benches. I sat while my mother and grandmother fussed over his grave. They brought a bucket with water and flowers, clippers, and pruning sheers. What did I know? I may have been 8 or 9 or 10 years old. I sat and daydreamed about what the World War I veteran was like next door to my grandfather as my mother and grandmother clipped and cleaned and placed the flowers in the vase, filling it with water, and dumping the rest in some reverent place like the cement beneath our car.
My grandfather did not die in battle. His was a less abrupt death. He was a veteran, who fought in World War II on the Pacific, so Memorial Day is not for him. Memorial Day is Decoration Day, the day to in some tangible way, honor the sacrifice of those who died in battle.
The stores would have us decorate our bodies with patriotic clothes, decorate our homes with bunting and paper lanterns in red, white, and blue, change our outdoor couch pillows to flag themed fabrics, and decorate our food to be festive.
For those who feel intensely the meaning of today, for those who fought and watched their comrades die, or heard later of their demise but lived to tell others, for those whose family members did not return, for those very nearly did not return themselves…thank you for sacrifice. We must remember those who have died and those left behind. For them and for you, we are grateful.
Let us remember that while carefree BBQ’s may seem disrespectful, that this tradition comes from the tradition in the history of Decoration Day: togetherness, picnics and decorating with the flag. We must balance the modern traditions with the heart of the day, not the commercial push. This is the spirituality of our country after all: to honor sacrifice, bravery and the spirit that does not quit but gives all one can until one can give no more.
Wherever you live, likely, a cemetery is not far away. Visit, take it in, say a prayer or give a thought of gratitude related to what you see there. Or nod in the general direction. Know what you gathered for, even if there is no one in your family who died in battle. Whichever war, whatever stance on the war, we can recognize the goodness of those on the ground and what they gave. I hope it can inspire us to give a little more ourselves.