Memorial Day marks a season of passage and transition. For many of us, it marks the beginning of Summer and the shift to outside activities. Pool openings, parades, store sales, and barbecues with family and friends are timed to coincide with this weekend that holds so much meaning. The deeper meaning of this holiday, of course, is tied to honoring those Veterans who have passed away and who are no longer with us.
This is a holiday that grew almost organically to acknowledge the sacrifices of our dead soldiers and to honor our collective loss of these souls. Honoring ancestors occurs in cultures across the world, and in the US, families have gathered at cemeteries to lay flowers at the graves of relatives and to spend time together well before there was a recognized holiday.
Around the time of the Civil War, practices began to specifically honor fallen soldiers. Shortly after the end of the war, the head of a group of Union veterans, Maj. Get John Logan, proclaimed that a Decoration Day be held on May 30th to lay flowers on the graves of all fallen soldiers, both Confederate and Union. And in Charleston, SC, a community of former slaves collected the bodies of Union soldiers that had been laid in a mass grave at a Confederate prison camp. After two weeks of effort, new graves had been laid and a community-wide celebration was held in gratitude for the freedom that their sacrifices helped to enable. A small town in Waterloo, New York, had also started a community wide, annual day of recognition of fallen soldiers. This community was recognized a hundred years later through a Congressional proclamation as the birthplace of our modern Memorial Day.
On Memorial Day, we honor all soldiers who have passed away. Some have fallen in the battlefield, and others have died afterwards as a result of the injuries (whether spiritual or physical) acquired while serving. Many veterans have died of other causes well after their military service has been completed; their willingness to serve and to sacrifice is also honored on this day.
This weekend, find your own way to honor the Veterans in your family and community. I recently discovered that my home town (Warrenton VA) also contributed to the origins of Memorial Day — it was in 1861, in Warrenton, that the first decoration of a Civil War soldier occurred. And this weekend, I’ll be attending the Warrenton Memorial Day parade and graveside ceremony.
There are so many ways to express reverence for those no longer with us who chose to serve and to acknowledge our shared loss. Perhaps you can lay out a small memorial in your home and exchange stories to bring alive the memory of someone who had served. Or maybe there is a community event nearby that you can attend – your efforts and presence will speak volumes about valuing our Veterans.
President, American Bando Association