My guess is that a lot of people these days are a little shaky about what Memorial Day is all about, except perhaps in families that have military service in their background. I think most of us know that it has something to do with honoring the nation’s war dead. Though I imagine that the numbers of people visiting cemeteries is probably a pretty small minority. More people decorated veterans’ graves when I was a child.
Well, this holiday, which used to be called Decoration Day, was in fact started to honor the dead of the bloodiest war in our history, the Civil War, and Michigan was the first state to officially recognize Memorial Day as a holiday, back in 1871.
By the way, if Americans had been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan in the same proportion as in the Civil War, we’d be looking at a death toll of more than six million. Except that in the Civil War, all the victims died and
were buried on our soil.
No wonder going to the cemetery and honoring them was such a big deal. As years went by, we expanded the holiday to honor the victims of other, newer wars, For many years, Memorial Day was on May 30th, regardless of the day of the week.
But in nineteen seventy-one, they moved it, along with most other federal holidays, to the nearest Monday, so people could have a three-day-weekend. That’s nice in a way, and thanks to that, I am up at my cottage this weekend. But frankly, as an old stick-in-the mud, I didn’t like it when they moved the holiday. I still don’t. This wasn’t supposed to be a holiday about convenience. Heroes didn’t die, after all, to suit according to someone’s vacation schedule.
Maybe if Memorial Day was on Thursday sometimes, we’d spend more time thinking about what it was supposed to be for. Well, as it is, I imagine pretty much everybody is happy to have today off, except for those unlucky thousands who didn’t get Memorial Day as a paid holiday and who have to work today.
Not to mention those hundreds of thousands who wish they had jobs to go to tomorrow. Still, there are plenty of people who do go and visit the graves of our veterans today, and think about who they were and what they sacrificed. But there’s something else I think we should think about doing instead. Visit an aging veteran, especially one from World War II. They really did help save the civilized world. Most are in their nineties now, and they are dying very rapidly. And many feel forgotten. I think they’d appreciate a visit even more than those rows of white headstones would.
And if you can’t do either, there’s something from the movie Saving Private Ryan that has always stuck with me -- and not the gory opening scene. Towards the end of the movie, the man who saved Private Ryan is himself dying. He looks at the boy and says, “Earn it.” Validate the sacrifice all our veterans made by living well.
By living a worthwhile life. Regardless of how you feel about war, or any particular war, if you do that, I think our veterans really won’t have died in vain.