It’s Memorial Day Weekend, and for many of us that means an extra day off, time spent with friends and family, barbeques and maybe a few beers over the long weekend. Stores will hold “Memorial Day” sales, and the roads to beaches everywhere will be clogged as we head into the long-awaited summer season.
Lest we forget, though, Memorial Day is about the sacrifice made by the more than 1.3 Americans who have died in the wars of our country.
This is the day set aside to remember the men and women throughout United States history who have given their lives in military service so that all of us are free to realize the American ideals that we treasure – and often take for granted – life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness. Freedom to say what we want to when and how we want to say it. Freedom to practice whatever religion we choose – or none at all. Freedom to speak out against and stand up to injustices.
Memorial Day was born from our country’s darkest days. Many communities during the Civil War observed a “Decoration Day,” placing flowers on the graves of the war dead. More Americans – 625,000 – died in that war than in any other, accounting for nearly half of U.S. war fatalities in our country’s history.
The first Memorial Day was proclaimed in May 1868 to honor those who died during the Civil War, with flowers placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers in Arlington National Cemetery. After World War I Memorial Day evolved to commemorate Americans who have died fighting in each of the country’s wars.
It was not until 1971, more than a century after the end of the Civil War and as the United States was reeling from the casualties and social strife of Vietnam, that Memorial Day was officially made a national holiday.
This weekend, flags will be lowered to half-staff. Some towns will hold parades with color guards and marching bands. American flags will be placed at the graves of soldiers all around our country, and flowers will appear on the graves of many, both soldier and civilian, as families and friends remember loved ones.
Military outfits and veterans groups will hold ceremonies to honor their fallen comrades – those from recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the loss still a fresh scar of pain, as well as the war dead of past generations, reaching to the earliest days of our country.
It is the current members of the military and the veterans who have served before, of course, who fully understand the meaning of Memorial Day, of the sacrifice made for freedom. The veterans have returned from wars, but they leave much on the battlefield or in the war zone, and often they lose friends there. For those who have served and continue to serve, and those who have lost a friend or brother, a son or daughter or spouse, Memorial Day has real meaning.
As for the rest of us, whether we are at the beach, grilling out with friends, shopping, or just relaxing one extra day this weekend – may we pause to remember, to give thanks, and to hope for the day when there are no new names to add to our war memorials.