As another Memorial Day dawns, I’m reminded that around this time last year Ed Morrissey asked the question, Have we forgotten the meaning of Memorial Day? I was doing some reading on the subject over the weekend and found that worries over a failure to properly honor this occasion don’t just stretch back for my entire life. The battle to keep to the intent of Memorial Day is essentially as old as the holiday itself.
Last year, Time Magazine put together a great historical piece on just that subject. The complaints about the fading purpose of the holiday actually began less than a score of years after the close of the Civil War. This was observed early on when the editors of the New York Tribune wrote in 1878, “It would be idle to deny that as individual sorrow for the fallen fades away the day gradually loses its best significance. The holiday aspect remains; how much longer the political character of the observance will linger we dare not guess.”
I suppose that their worries were, at least in some ways, valid. But the complete loss of the Memorial Day message never took place, proven by the fact that we’re still arguing over it 140 years later. Many people still do their best and we delight in telling the stories of folks who hew to the real meaning of the holiday, such as “The Good Cemeterian.” But the fact remains – as observed annually by so many others – that Memorial Day has largely become the opposite anchor to Labor Day. One marks the unofficial beginning of summer, the other the end of it.
This evolution of the holiday should probably give us pause if we’re out there having a barbeque today and partying down without any thought for the two categories of people who it was all supposed to be for. There are the Honored Dead, who fill places like Arlington, and then there are those who are left behind. Keep in mind that Memorial Day – or Decoration Day as it was long also called – was originally put in place as a permanent reminder of the more than 600,000 lives lost in the Civil War, later expanding to cover all the wars that followed.
Those who actually participated in the Civil War understood it best. Shortly after the holiday was made official, Union General John A. Logan wrote, “Let us, then, at the time appointed, gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with choicest flowers of springtime; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved from dishonor; let us in this solemn presence renew our pledges to aid and assist those whom they have left among us as sacred charges upon the Nation’s gratitude, the soldier’s and sailor’s widow and orphan.”
The phrase widow and orphan is the key takeaway here. This ties in with some of the observations Ed Morrissey made last year. Following World War 2, most of the country was either directly affected by the losses we sustained in the war or knew someone who was. But the shifting nature of our military leaves us today with only a tiny fraction of families who are connected by blood and tears to those who fight and, to this day, still sometimes die. Memorial Day, as General Logan said, is in place to not only remember the Honored Dead but to comfort those they left behind.
Most Americans can, if so inclined, go out to a cemetery today and stand in awe, seeing the flags marking the “passionless mounds” which cover the fallen. The reverence most feel is of an abstract nature, speaking to a general sense of gratitude and patriotism. But the spouses and children of the Honored Dead experience the day in a far more raw and wrenching fashion. There’s nothing theoretical about their pain and sense of loss. Yet when they see the rest of the nation joining them in placing flowers and flags, observing a moment of silence, we can at least hope that they take some comfort in the communal sense of mourning, assured yet again that their very real and rending sacrifice when they forever gave up their husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, was not in vain.
The list of those who join the ranks of the Honored Dead in America has, thankfully, grown shorter year by year. But still, it grows. New names are added and every one of them leaves their own “soldier’s and sailor’s widow and orphan” behind. If you need a reason to keep hold of the original meaning of Memorial Day today, that should be more than enough.