Memorial Day: What’s it all about?

Yesterday saw America observe Memorial Day, a day set aside to remember those who died in service of the United States of America. 

It is a day that is commonly marked with community picnics, family gatherings, barbecues, memorials and speeches. But the origins of what is now a national holiday has a much more somber purpose. 

Brief History of Memorial Day

Originally called Decoration Day, May 30th was a common time to decorate the graves of those killed in the Civil War. It’s history now is now somewhat forgotten and the origins of Decoration Day are a bit fuzzy. But the long and the short of it according to the Department of Veteran Affairs and the City of Waterloo, New York, the first officially recognized Decoration Day was celebrated on May 5 1868, three years after the official end of the Civil War. But it is also noted that several local derivations of something like Decoration Day have genuine origins all over the southern and eastern United States. 

President Lyndon B. Johnson helped to forward the  Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which moved four holidays, including Memorial Day,  to create more three-day weekends. Congress passed the act June 28, 1968. 

Why Memorial Day is Important

I find two reasons why Memorial Day is important. 

Many holidays in the United States are based on remembrance and the feast, anthropologically speaking. Days of remembrance are ritual based days that often exist in society to create common experiences that smooth over conflicts based inherently in diversity of human thought. The benevolently viewed ends of ritual is to create a society that gets along based on a common experience or practice. Similarly, the feast is a way to add a positive common experience by giving the impression that as a collective group there is abundance. It hearkens to our earliest days as a society when humanity made a living out of what it scrape off with simple stone tools. By gathering together and enjoying a good meal that is separated from other meals by time or setting, people feel good about the current state of things and are more appreciative of the moment. 

All the reasons mentioned above are true. Great social benefits is given to having common holidays. But the benefit of the collective often forgets the individual, especially the individuals for which is purposed. 

We are to remember the service men who fight and die for our lifestyle so we don’t have to. Think about that for a bit. Were it not for the dedicated and damaging work of the military men and women everywhere, each citizen would be tasked with taking arms to defend hearth and home. There are great horrors in the world that would find there way here were it not for those who stand ready to meet the dark with their firey fury. 

President Andrew Garfield gave a stirring address at Arlington Cemetery on May 30, 1868. In my opinion, it stands as a supreme testament to what we ought to think of Memorial Day. 

“I am oppressed with a sense of the impropriety of uttering words on this occasion. If silence is ever golden, it must be here beside the graves of fifteen thousand men, whose lives were more significant than speech, and whose death was a poem, the music of which can never be sung.”

Veterans live with the price paid 

We are surrounded by men and women and woman who pay the price of freedom. A banker would immediately recognize that this creates a credit that is charged to all men and women to use the freedom given to the fullest extent possible. The first act of freedom should come in the form of an expression of thanks. Say thank you to a veteran and listen to their stories. I was told by a veteran of World War II when I was young that he never wanted to remember again the things that he had experienced. But, he mentioned that simply being acknowledged and appreciated for his work meant the world to him. He did tell me thing about his time in the war, like having to improvise parts for Jeep engines and rigging road barriers to blow. I think it helped him to talk. 

In closing, take a moment to watch this TED talk from Andrew Chambers. I can’t remember a moment that captures the raw weight of what combat veterans carry. Say thank you. Do what you can to help them. Do not fear them. Appreciate them. Have empathy. They are the sword and shield of America. 



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