In Memoriam

May 25, 2015

Today is Memorial Day. Do you know what that is? You probably do, even if, like me, you don’t often give it a ton of thought. You probably at least know it’s our annual holiday held in remembrance of those who died in military service for the United States.

What you may not know is that it has an interesting history. I ended up in a bit of an internet rabbit hole reading about it and came to see I knew basically nothing about its origins. A holiday to honor the sacrifice of soldiers seemed obvious enough that I never gave much thought to the traditions from which it might have emerged.

For one, calling it Memorial Day is a surprisingly modern convention. It began as Decoration Day, so named after the act of decorating the graves of fallen soldiers from which the holiday arose. It did not become officially known as Memorial Day until 1967. Though decorating the graves of soldiers is an old custom, more than two dozen towns claim to be the birthplace of the holiday in the U.S. according to this site.

Regardless of where it truly began, there’s no disagreement that it moved from cultural custom to formal holiday in the aftermath of the Civil War. This point of origin was a strange revelation for me. I’ve always though of Memorial Day along with Independence Day as almost quintessentially American, one of the few aspects of our culture for which there is nearly uniform support.

But as I read through the synopsized history on Wikipedia, it was clear that was not the case when the holiday began. Because the holiday began in the fallout from the Civil War, the traditions and customs associated with it were very different between the North and the South. This was, at first, not a holiday to honor the dead from American wars generally, but instead to rehash the travesty of the Civil War in particular. The North used it to bash the South, and the South used it to lament the failure of the Confederacy. A quintessential American holiday was originally as much about cultural posturing as it was about honoring fallen soldiers.

Learning this bit of history was eye-opening, and it’s made me face some heretofore unexamined feelings about Memorial Day more generally. Around the time of certain major holidays, mostly religious ones, we are often treated to pronouncements from self-appointed cultural commentators declaring that we have collectively lost sight of the true purpose of a given holiday. These treacly, preachy pleas for our misguided culture to see the error of its ways mostly fall on deaf ears for me.* They don’t resonate. If Christmas has been co-opted by brazen materialism, I think that’s for the church to worry about, not secular society.

Memorial Day is a bit different. Its existence and its celebration have implications for all of us in ways that religious holidays do not. And perhaps because it’s a holiday for which there is nearly uniform reverence, the op-eds and editorials are less about how we’ve lost our way and more about the inherent value and importance of the holiday, about how critical it is that we set aside this time to pay tribute to those who’ve paid the ultimate sacrifice in the name of defending our country. They take the form of solemn inculcations to put aside whatever disagreements we might have socially, culturally and politically to honor and respect our soldiers.

That’s fine. I’m good with that.

And so we fly jets over baseball games. We raise the flag to the top of the staff as fast as we can and then drop it to half-staff before raising it again. We hold parades where we salute veterans and listen to politicians speak about how we will not let these sacrifices be in vain.

Again, this is all good.

But let’s also remember that Memorial Day exists because we fight wars, and that even if we ultimately decide it’s necessary, war is tragic outcome. Let’s remember that Memorial Day came to be as result of our country ripping itself apart. It was not a unified attempt to honor those who fell defending our country; it was a symbol of division within it.

That’s not what it is now, and that’s great. I’m glad we take time to remember, collectively, how lucky we are to have men and women willing to die in defense of freedom.

But as we take the time between hotdogs and potato salad to honor our military dead, let’s also set aside a little time to think about how we can keep from making more of them. We can do both at the same time, I promise. I’d even go further to say we owe it our servicemen and women to do so. Today, I exalt the sacrifice of soldiers while also lamenting that we need Memorial Day in the first place.

*I may have written something like that here, but so be it.

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