I have to admit that I bristle every time I hear someone say “Happy Memorial Day” or see an ad for Memorial Day car or furniture sales covered in American flags. On one hand, it’s great to have a long weekend where a large share of American working families get to have time off together–we work hard, we sacrifice, and we build the best quality of life we can in this country. We love the beach, the lake, the river, the backyard, or wherever we choose to celebrate that.
But it’s also well worth taking some time to remember why Memorial Day is a federal holiday in the United States. This isn’t the same as Veteran’s Day, where we honor and celebrate those who have served in our nation’s wars. Memorial Day is the somber analog to Veterans Day–Memorial Day is where we commemorate and grieve the loss of so many in our nation’s wars, and the holes left by those losses in our families, in our communities, and in our hearts.
Originally Decoration Day, the last Monday in May was the day that widows, orphans, fellow veterans, and community organizations would place fresh spring flowers on the graves of Union soldiers who died in the Civil War. This was a war that had affected every family in the United States, where an estimated 2.5 percent of the entire population had died as a result of the four years of brutal combat on our own soil. (By comparison, less than half of a percent of our population today has served in our current wars.) The Civil War decimated an entire generation of men, leaving families without fathers, husbands, sons, and breadwinners. And so many of the men who returned home were wounded and dismembered, with little treatment to soothe their aching wounds. Life went on, but the loss of these men was a daily reality for the families and communities who had relied on them.
Setting aside one day out of the year to decorate their graves seems almost diminutive of such loss, but it made grieving a collective, public act. While on a daily basis only families and loved ones decorate graves, Memorial Day was a day where flags were flown at half staff to remember all of the fallen, when communities would decorate the all of the graves with flowers, an American flag, or other tokens of remembrance. It is a public remembrance, a day where we can say collectively that those fallen in our wars have not been forgotten, that we haven’t forgotten what it meant to those families to struggle on without the ones they’ve lost.
It’s a good thing that we are a nation no longer impacted by entire generations destroyed by war, and that most families will enjoy a barbecue or picnic on Monday instead of a tearful visit to a loved one’s grave. But. Please take some time to remember those who are missing a husband, wife, father, mother, brother, or sister because they died in Iraq, Afghanistan, or another combat zone of recent memory. As a nation, we must remember those losses, and those still struggling to move on from them.
Lift a glass in honor of fallen comrades and their families. Speak the names of the dead so they are not forgotten. Talk about a family member in your past who made the ultimate sacrifice, or who struggled on after their loss. Visit a cemetery and place flowers or a flag on a fallen soldier’s grave. Remember and honor the sacrifice.