"The 30th day of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet church-yard in the land. In this observance no form of ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.
Order signed by John Logan, Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic
DETAILS HAVE CHANGED, but the spirit captured in Logan's order remains true. Originally, Memorial Day was intended to honor Union and Confederate soldiers who had died in the Civil War. The original intent was for the day to be a day of reconciliation, a day to honor all who had fought and died.
It took a while for that reconcilliation to come to be and for all Americans to recognize Memorial Day, but by the end of World War I, Americans from both the North and the South set aside the day to honor those who had served and died in the process.
SEVERAL OF THE MORE POIGNANT examples of the continuing tradition of Memorial Day include:
- On the Thursday before Memorial Day, soldiers with the 3rd U.S. Infantry still place small flags on all of the 260,000 gravestones in Arlington National Cemetery. Soldiers then patrol the cemetery through the weekend to ensure all of the flags remain standing.
- Since 1951, Boy and Cub Scouts in St. Louis have been placing flags on the 150,000 graves at the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery.
- In 2000, Congress passed the National Moment of Remembrance resolution, which calls for all Americans to pause at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day "To voluntarily and informally observe in their own way a Moment of remembrance and respect ..."
TRADITION REMAINS, but memories are short and these days, many Americans seem to have forgotten the purpose of the holiday. A change in 1971 is, in large part, responsible. In the National Holiday Act, the date of Memorial Day was changed from May 30 to the last Monday in May - which ensures it always is part of a three day weekend. These days, the holiday has become for many a marker of the beginning of the summer season.
The number of patriotic parades continues to shrink and a large number of Americans now celebrate the holiday with barbecues, camping and trips to the lake rather than by decorating graves at a cemetery.
But the day was never meant to be about summer, it was meant to be about service. There are those who are trying to return Memorial Day to always be on May 30 in an effort to recapture its original intent.
As I sit here blogging, free to write whatever I will, I think that might be a good idea. Perhaps something we all should do this Memorial Day is to write our representatives, asking them to support efforts to return Memorial Day to May 30 - regardless of the day of the week it falls upon.
After all, we have the next several months to celebrate summer. We should keep one day set aside to honor all of those who have earned it. We should live up to the spirit and words found in Logan's order:
"If other eyes grow dull, other hands slack, and other hearts cold in the solemn trust, ours shall keep it well as long as the light and warmth of life remain to us."