Tag Archive | "origin of Memorial Day"

Commemorating Memorial Day

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The origin of Memorial Day dates back to the period immediately following the Civil War when ladies of the South began decorating graves of deceased Confederate soldiers.  The day was termed Decoration Day.  This practice was adopted by the Union and later would be called Memorial Day, a day set aside to honor and respect the men and women who paid the ultimate sacrifice in protecting the freedom of our country.

 

In the years after its inception, Memorial Day was a solemn occasion to remember the honored dead of America’s wars.  Americans used this day as an opportunity to decorate the graves of our fallen heroes with flowers, wreaths, and flags, as well as spend some time reflecting on the fallen and the sacrifices they made.

 

Maybe, it was a mistake to proclaim the day a holiday.  In today’s world, holidays are perceived as joyous occasions, times to relax and recreate.  Memorial Day is most often celebrated with picnics and barbecues for friends and family.  For most, it is hardly a day to visit cemeteries and reflect on our lives and the lives of those whose sacrifice preserved our freedom to enjoy the holiday.  And, the decision to change the date of Memorial Day to accommodate a three-day weekend only served to further promote the image of the day as a festive occasion.

 

Presently, Memorial Day is perceived as the kick-off to the summer season, a weekend to flock to the seashore or the mountains.  Retail businesses have seized upon the day as an opportunity to entice shoppers with a day off from work to spend some of their hard earned dollars.  With travel, shopping, and get-togethers with family and friends, there is little time for thought and even less for visits to cemeteries to decorate the graves of those who made this day possible.

 

To preserve the intent of those Southern ladies who created a day to honor and respect soldiers who died in the service of the Confederacy, Memorial Day should have been proclaimed a national day of mourning and not a holiday.  In consideration of the sheer numbers of American soldiers who have died on foreign soil in the cause of freedom, a somber day of reflection would seem more appropriate than a frantic day of shopping and overindulgence.

 

As a reminder of the magnitude of the debt we owe to our fallen soldiers, one need only review the statistics.  In the aftermath of World War I, the United States Congress enacted the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) to administer, operate, and maintain American Cemeteries on foreign soil.  The ABMC currently administers 25 burial grounds on foreign soil where there are interred 124,908 war dead including 30,922 from World War I, 93,236 from World War II, and 750 from the Mexican War.

 

In addition, there are 14,907 American veterans in the Mexico City National Cemetery. 94,000 names of soldiers missing in action are memorialized at World War I and World War II cemeteries.  From the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, there are 8200 and 2504 names of unaccounted for soldiers.

 

As you can see, the number of war dead interred or missing on foreign soil alone is staggering. But, the real casualties of war are the families of these men and women who will be thinking and praying for their lost loved ones on this Memorial Day.

In Memory of Memorial Day

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Because many towns and cities claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day, the exact origin of this holiday remains vague.  Originally named Decoration Day, we do know that Memorial Day has Southern roots.  It began when groups of Southern women decorated the graves of Confederate soldiers during and after the Civil War.  “Kneel Where Our Loves Are Sleeping,” a hymn published in 1867 by Nella L. Sweet, was sung during the commemorative ceremonies.  However, Decoration Day was neither recognized nor treated as a special day.


In the wake of the Civil War, a great rift continued to exist between the North and South, as did the need to honor the fallen soldiers on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line.  Reconciliation between the two sides was critical to our national healing process.


General John A. Logan, Commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, began that process.  On May 5, 1868 Logan announced the establishment of Memorial Day.  On May 30th of that year, the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers were decorated, for the first time, at Arlington Cemetery.


The State of New York officially recognized the holiday in 1873; by 1890, the other Northern States had embraced it.  The South, however, continued to observe a separate day.  After World War I, Memorial Day assumed a broader meaning.  Proclaimed a national holiday, its intent was to honor the fallen soldiers of all wars.


In 1915, Moina Michael, who was inspired by the poem “In Flanders Field,” penned her own paean to our troops:


We cherish, too, the poppy red

That grows on fields where valor led.

It seems to signal to the skies

That blood of heroes never dies.

 

Moina sold poppy flowers to benefit our servicemen in need.  Her devotion, coupled with her poem, gave birth to the practice of wearing poppies in our lapels in observance of Memorial Day.


A French woman named Madam Guerin then copied this practice as a means of generating funds for the Franco-American Children’s League, which supported orphans in France and Belgium.  A year later, when  the League disbanded, Madam Guerin reached out to the VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) for assistance.  Thus, the VFW became the first veterans’ organization to sell Buddy Poppies made by disabled veterans nationwide.  In 1948, the United States Postal Service honored Ms. Michael for her role in founding the National Poppy Movement with a three-cent stamp bearing her likeness.


Over the years, America has drifted away from traditional customs, and Memorial Day is one such casualty.  Ironically, it was our government that initiated the loss of Memorial Day as a way of honoring the men and women who made the supreme sacrifice for our country.


In 1971, Congress enacted P.L. 90-363, which stated that Memorial Day would henceforth be celebrated on the last Monday in May, in order to ensure a three-day holiday weekend.   It also guaranteed that businesses would rake in extra cash by hosting Memorial Day blowout sales.  The VFW and other veteran groups responded to P.L. 90-363 by telling our legislators that changing the date simply to accommodate a three-day holiday weekend would undermine the very meaning of the day.  Congress’ act has contributed directly to the public’s nonchalant observance of Memorial Day.


On January 19, 1999 Senator Inouye introduced a bill to the Senate (S-189) in order to return Memorial Day to its original date of May 30th.  Exactly three months later, Representative Gibbons introduced virtually the same bill, H.R. 1474, to the House.   Both bills were referred to the Judiciary Committee and the Committee on Government Reform.  To date, the bills are still languishing.   I guess they’re not good for business.


In December 2000, in an effort to restore public awareness, President Clinton issued a directive to have a voluntary moment of silence at 3 PM on Memorial Day.


Despite these efforts, Congress sought to hijack yet another day of observance when it attempted to convert Veterans Day to a three-day holiday weekend.  Met with stiff opposition by veterans’ groups, the attempt did not succeed.


American traditions are constantly challenged for the sake of the Almighty Buck.  If our days of observance vanish completely, it will be because our lawmakers failed to understand that Sacrifice without remembrance is meaningless.


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