Memorial Day is an American holiday set aside to remember and honor all those who died while serving in the American Armed Forces. The origin of the holiday is not entirely clear. In fact, several cities claim to be the birthplace of the holiday: Charleston, SC; Waterloo, NY; and Columbus, GA.
The Charleston story is especially poignant. During the Civil War, 257 Union soldiers died in the prison in Charleston. They were hastily buried in unmarked graves. Shortly after the war, the town’s black residents
landscaped a burial ground and gave the men a proper burial. At the dedication of the new cemetery, the people decorated the graves, listened to speeches, prayed, and then did what many of us still do on Memorial Day: they had a picnic nearby.
No matter who gets credit for the holiday, this fact is clear. The entire nation had suffered unbelievable losses in the Civil War. The problem arose: how to memorialize and honor the 625,000 dead? The poet Walt Whitman describes how vast the carnage was: it was “the dead, the dead, the dead—our dead—or South or North, ours all.” 625,000 dead! If the same number of Americans per capita had died in Vietnam, the Vietnam War Memorial would have 4 million names on it instead of 58,000.
After the Civil War, memorial celebrations took root in cities and towns across the country—in both the North and the South. The day was originally called Decoration Day and was celebrated on various dates too, usually at the end of May. But in 1968 Congress officially named the day Memorial Day and set the date for the last Monday in May. This assured everyone of a three-day weekend. For many, the day also became the official beginning of summer.
In the U.S. we also celebrate Veterans’ Day on November 11. Whereas Memorial Day honors those who actually died while serving, Veterans’ Day honors all who have served or are currently serving in the Armed Forces.
How do you celebrate Memorial Day?
* By displaying the American flag?
* By participating in local ceremonies and festivities?
* By going to Mass?
* By having a picnic?
* By watching the National Memorial Day concert on the west lawn of the capitol building?
* By praying for peace?
* By doing some form of service to those in need?
However we choose to celebrate Memorial Day, may we never forget its origin and purpose: to honor those who gave the supreme sacrifice of their lives that we might have the gift of freedom. And may we continue to use that freedom to work and pray for peace that will eventually make war memorials a thing of the past.
Happy Memorial Day to all of you!
I chose “Let there Be Peace on Earth” for today’s song. This version is sung by Vince Gill and others.
Do you have anything you’d like to share today?