Memorial Day is a time of remembrance and of thanksgiving. It is a time of “remembrance” because we pay our respects to the one million American men and women who laid down their lives in time of war. It is a time of “thanksgiving” because we are thankful that such people once lived, and that their legacy is the unparalleled freedom we enjoy in this country and much of the world.
Back in 1888, Civil War veterans groups were miffed because fewer Americans were visiting the graves of slain soldiers on Memorial Day. Rather, they were having picnics or going to parades, horse races and the like. In fact, President Grover Cleveland even took it on the chin when he decided to go fishing.
Today, too, people forget that the day was meant to honor those who died for their country while in the armed forces. Instead, it is noted, the day is a celebration of the coming of summer, part of a three-day weekend when people search out bargains in stores or enjoy themselves in a variety of leisurely pursuits.
Backyard barbecues, pool openings and school vacations… Memorial Day marks more than the beginning of summer across the nation. In fact, for years and years, the day was a day of rancor, a time when the nation relived the Civil War. The South celebrated Confederate Memorial Day, and the North celebrated Decoration Day. Speeches were mainly about the iniquities of the other side.
This business of using Memorial Day to get angry about past battles is essentially behind us now. Is recognizing the ultimate sacrifice of men and women in uniform also behind us?
Throughout the history of civilization, men and women of good will have honored their war dead. They have paid homage to those who went into harms way when their country called. If we expect future generations to answer the call of duty, this is a tradition that must be preserved.
While there is nothing wrong with people having a good time on Memorial Day, it is also crucial to remember these sacrifices, for out of these memories we construct our identity, and we build values that have enduring meaning. If the president wants to go fishing, that’s okay. But it’s not okay to shirk remembering on a day set aside for remembering.
Recognizing those whose lives were cut short for the benefit of the rest of us is one part of the Memorial Day tradition that should live on. Remember those who paid the price. Whether we are veterans or not, all of us have a duty to do what we can do to pass on to the next generation the blessings of liberty and an appreciation for the values of patriotism, honesty, charity, civility and diligence.