As with so much in our national life, change has come to Memorial Day. Flags continue to fly, patriotic garlands hang from porch railings, and bunting flutters in late-May breezes. Nevertheless, in ways both subtle and obnoxious, Memorial Day has become primarily a beginning-of-summer ritual: a time to focus on beaches, barbeques, mattress sales, and the first road trip of the season.
In truth, the slowly-fading history and significance of Memorial Day is both more complex and more interesting than most Americans realize.
With the ending of the Civil War, commemorations spread across the South as mothers, wives, and children of the Confederate dead decorated the graves of their fallen soldiers.
At that time, the outward signs of that flaming and bitter strife were still fresh and new. The bosom of nature, ploughed by the iron of war, had not yet healed. Everywhere were smoke-blackened and shattered shells, each at one time the patriarchal mansion of some great slave-holding planter.
Woods and glades were thinned out by the storm of shot and shell that had torn through them with iron hail. In one place or another long rows – rank upon rank – of shallow mounds stretched up hills, along the level, through the woodlands: battalions of graves hardly yet covered with the thin young grass.
Upon a dozen battle-fields were great cemeteries, each consecrated with its baptism of blood, and there North and South lay in stillness, soldiers stretched side by side, in a fraternity never to be broken, because the Angel Israfelhimself had set his seal of silence upon it all.
It was to these battle cemeteries, greater or lesser, that the women of the neighboring country brought their offering of flowers.
There is something very full of pathos in the thought of those poor Southern women who had suffered so much and who had endured to such a bitter end – of those patient women of grief bringing their harmless offerings of flowers to these stern and furrowed fields of death, there to lay the fading things upon the bosom of each mound.
The North, it is said, was remembered at those times as well as the South. One cannot but hope this may be true, for it is beautiful to think of one woman of sorrows in the South reaching out an unseen hand to some other and unknown woman of sorrows in the faraway North.
On May 5, 1868, General John A. Logan, Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, issued orders that on May 30th of that year all posts should decorate the graves of the Civil War dead with flowers – both North and South – thus formalizing what had become customary.
After World War I, the focus of the day was expanded to honor all those who had died in all American wars, and Memorial Day began to replace Decoration Day as a term of reference. In 1971, Memorial Day was declared a national holiday by an act of Congress and placed on the last Monday in May.
By the years of my midwestern childhood, the rituals of Decoration Day had become firmly established. On the weekend preceding the holiday, we traveled to family cemeteries to clear away grass from the stones, trim the bushes, and plant fresh flowers. The town’s Boy Scouts, 4-H members, and church youth groups helped the Veterans of Foreign Wars place flags on veterans’ graves, so that all who served would be remembered.
Classroom lessons included the history of significant battles, and Presidential speeches. We created red, white and blue pennants containing patriotic images – the Tree of Liberty, the Liberty Bell, or Lady Liberty’s torch – and posters containing words we barely apprehended: Freedom. Peace. Courage.
Always, there was time for personal memories. World War II lay only a decade in the past, so tokens of that time were common: rationing coupons for gas and sugar; ribbons and medals awarded for bravery; photographs and correspondence from the front.
Once year, I shared a letter from my Uncle Jack, who fought in the Pacific but lay buried in Manila. His letters somehow disappeared into the great maw of time, but I have my father’s words to his brother:
We got your letter today and were sure glad to hear from you and that you are OK. It must be something over there. We kind of figured you must be up in the front, as we had not heard of you for some time…
Saw in the paper that the kid I used to ask you about was wounded over in Leyte. From that I figured you must be in there, too, as he is in the same division as you. Things must be bad there in more ways than one. From the papers it sounds like you are doing OK, though. Sure hope so…
Had you heard that Don was wounded? He was hit by a piece of flak. I guess his flying days are over from what he says. Sure hope you get through this campaign without injury. It sure must be nerve-wracking to fight all day and stand guard all night…
Take care of yourself and be careful. Hope this thing is over and you get home pretty soon. Write when you can…
Once school was dismissed on Friday, the routine never varied. Saturday morning meant a parade. In the afternoon, we cooked for Sunday’s trip to my grandparents’ home and then, at Sunday worship, we listened as a deacon read the list of congregational members killed or missing in action. We sang hymns acknowledging the realities of worldly conflict, and listened to sermons meant to comfort those still grieving their loss.
On Memorial Day itself we returned to the cemetery for flag ceremonies and speeches: a different sort of comfort.
On May 30, 1896, Father John J. Woods, pastor of Brooklyn’s Holy Cross Church, delivered some typical remarks. After members of the Veterans and Sons of Veterans’ Mutual Benefit Union marched with a fife and drum corps past decorated houses and cheering crowds to Holy Cross Cemetery, they heard these words, later reported in The Brooklyn Eagle.
“Where in the history of the world can be found any preamble or constitution as that of America? Its enunciation carried hope and consolation to the downtrodden and afflicted of every country, its promulgation and realization by a handful of valiant patriots sent consternation to cruel tyrants and earthly potentates, and proved that more than a human hand guided the destinies of the young republic.
The corner stone of this republic was laid in the noblest blood that ever flowed in battle, for it was shed for principle and God-given rights that no tyrant or power can stifle, much less destroy.
Our forefathers grabbed the sword and musket not to extend their territory or possessions, not to further ambitious objects, but to protect their heavenly gift of liberty. ‘Who will dare,’ cried they to the world, ‘deprive us of our right to seek happiness? Who will dare fetter us by unlawful and excessive taxation? Who will deny us the right to worship our Creator according to the dictates of our consciences? None, unless at the loss of our fortunes, our lives and sacred honor.”
Always, Decoration Day closed with a concert in the park. Battle-scarred or whole, old or young, bereaved by conflict or blessedly untouched, we gathered to hear the familiar songs.
After singing along with Cohen’s “You’re a Grand Old Flag” and clapping and toe-tapping our way through Sousa marches, our program invariably concluded with “The Battle Hymn of Republic.” Sometimes there were tears, and Peter Wilhousky’s arrangment still touches me: recalling as it does a time, not so long ago and perhaps still recoverable, when people of every political stripe, of wildly varying economic status, of every faith or of no faith at all, were willing to set aside differences in order to stand together in reverence before the majesty and mystery of a nation “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
As we come to our own Memorial Day celebrations, honoring those whose graves we decorate and cherishing the memory of their service on our behalf, perhaps we would do well to remember that lives, too, can be decorated: draped with the selflessness, integrity, honesty, and valor that constitute the best garlands of citizenship.
If we choose to live by such values, we may yet ensure that our dead have not died in vain; that our nation shall have a new birth of freedom; and that, in the words of Lincoln, “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”