Although the practice of honoring fallen soldiers is an ancient one, our modern Memorial Day has its beginnings much more recently. Prior to the American Civil War, many cemeteries – especially in the rural South – were cleaned and decorated during late spring. This allowed extended families to gather and honor their ancestors while keeping filial bonds strong even when families had spread over large areas.
After the Civil War, organizations sprang up to decorate the graves of soldiers – both Union and Confederate – that had died during the war. Although still not an official holiday, Decoration Day, as it was called then, was important for the families that had lost members during that great conflict.
Memorial Day was recognized as an official Federal holiday in 1967 and the date fixed to the last Monday in May in 1968. A well established and important day of mourning had become the holiday we are now familiar with. National flags should be flown at half-staff until noon and there is an annual National Moment of Remembrance that takes place at three pm every year.
Unofficially celebrated as the beginning of summer, Memorial Day is a welcome opportunity to get outside and enjoy parades, barbeques, and events. Sporting events, such the Indianapolis 500, the Coca-Cola 600 auto races and the NCAA championships, are held during the Memorial Day weekend and in some ways have overshadowed the original, somber meaning of Decoration Day.
While Veterans Day celebrates all of those who have served in the military, Memorial Day should honor those who gave their lives in war. Not all of them earned medals, not all of them were heroes and I would be willing to wager that very few of them thought they were. For most of us, the military was a way to get more out of life than our upbringing was offering. We swore the oath, put on the uniform and went to work.
But, part of that oath was to defend our country and the people I served with at the time – and the young people who wear the uniform today – could and did make the ultimate sacrifice to keep our nation free. Although I didn’t know all of them, I knew sailors and marines who were killed in Beirut and the Middle East. It was an honor to serve with them and I will never forget the sacrifices they made.
Memorial Day should remind us all that we are only here through the sacrifices of brave young men and women who, throughout our nation’s history, have laid aside peaceful pursuits to take upon themselves the defense of our freedoms and way of life. Enjoy your holiday but remember the cost that allows us to celebrate it.
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