Ask anyone under the age of fifty to explain why Memorial Day is special and they’re liable to tell you it’s because Memorial Day marks the unofficial start of summer. That may be a good enough reason to celebrate, but it does not have much to do with the holiday.
My parents and grandparents referred to Memorial Day as Decoration Day when I was growing up. In fact, it wasn’t until 1967 that the name was officially changed, and not until 1971 that the holiday was observed on the last Monday in May instead of May 30th.
Changing the date of the holiday so that it falls on the last day of a long weekend has altered the nation’s sense of what the day is about. Some people do not know that Memorial Day is set aside to honor those who died in America’s wars. And others, who are aware of the day’s association with the departed, think of it as a day to honor anyone who has died.
The holiday’s roots go back to the time of the Civil War, when women gathered to decorate the graves of fallen Confederate soldiers. In the South, formal observances were being held within a year of the end of the war. In the North, a national Decoration Day was proclaimed and celebrated in 1868, and quickly became a state holiday in Michigan and other states.
So many men died in the Civil War (current estimates are over 700,000, more than in all other U.S. wars combined) that the nation could find no escape from the pain of her loss. The total U.S. population at the beginning of the Civil War was less than 32 million, which means that about one of every fifty people living in the U.S. died in the war.
Unable to escape her pain, the nation chose instead to remember. After northerners and southerners died side by side on foreign battlefields in the First World War, the North and the South began to celebrate Decoration Day together. The importance of the day loomed large again following WWII (with over 400,000 deaths) and, only a few years later, the Korean War.
But times have changed. Since Viet Nam, almost all of America’s wars have been unpopular. The nation, unwilling to glorify war, has in some cases failed to honor those who died in war to protect us. And now, after decades of unpopular wars, the nation is served by a professional, all-volunteer army, which has significantly altered the average American’s interest in the armed forces and, as a consequence, in Memorial Day.
Fewer and fewer towns are holding Memorial Day parades. The graves of those who died in battle are frequently unattended. Decoration Day is in danger of becoming Barbecue Day.
Does all this mean that Memorial Day has become passé? Will it, like May Day, slip into oblivion? When those who still remember WWII and Korea are gone, will the meaningful observance of Memorial Day go with them?
One suspects that it will and hopes that, if it does, it will herald the day when “Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4).
But in some future day when war has been forgotten (may God haste the day), warriors should still be remembered. Those who gave their lives for a cause bigger than themselves deserve not only to be remembered but to be honored. They represent what is best about America: the willingness to endure hardship and sacrifice for the sake of others. Such willingness to sacrifice is even godlike, for it is reminiscent of the one “who gave himself as a ransom for all men” (1 Timothy 2:6).
We ought to remember those who died for us and pay tribute to their sacrifice, if for no other reason than this: if we forget the cost of war, it won’t be long before we are paying it again.
Published 5/25/2013 in The Coldwater Daily Reporter