And Does Anybody Really Care?
"Happy Memorial Day" will be on the lips of the clueless. “Honor Our Veterans!” and “Celebrate Memorial Day!” proclaim the ads placed by people who just don't understand. “Sale! Sale! Sale!,” scream the ads placed by people who just don't care as long as they can make a quick buck.
What has America done to Memorial Day? And does anybody really care?
Let's get something straight right up front: you don't ever “celebrate” Memorial Day. Do the idiots who go about “celebrating” even realize what the word “memorial” means? It means somebody died, you damn fools, and you never “celebrate” that. You can commemorate it or you can honor it, but you don't celebrate it. Unless you're the kind who wears paper hats and brings party favors to memorial services and funerals.
Memorial Day started out as Decoration Day. From www.usmemorialday.org: Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, is a day of remembrance for those who have died in service of the United States of America. Over two dozen cities and towns claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day. While Waterloo N.Y. was officially declared the birthplace of Memorial Day by President Lyndon Johnson in May 1966, it’s difficult to prove conclusively the origins of the day.
Regardless of the exact date or location of its origins, one thing is clear – Memorial Day was borne out of the Civil War and a desire to honor our dead. It was officially proclaimed on 5 May 1868 by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, in his General Order No. 11. “The 30th 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 churchyard in the land,” he proclaimed. The date of Decoration Day, as he called it, was chosen because it wasn’t the anniversary of any particular battle.
On another point, did you catch those key phrases on the description? “A day of remembrance for those who have died in service of the United States of America” and “borne out of …... a desire to honor our dead,” and “designated for the purpose of ….. decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country.” Died, dead........it's not Veterans Day or Armed Forces Day, people. Those are the days we set aside to honor our veterans and our servicemen and women who are living. Memorial Day is for the dead; for those who sacrificed all. Don't cheapen that sacrifice by trying to make Memorial Day “inclusive.” My uncle survived landing at Normandy. Another fought at Saipan. My son has been in the Air Force for more than a decade. I honor them on the appropriate days, Veterans Day and Armed Forces Day. Memorial Day I reserve for the young men from my school days who did not return from Vietnam. For my uncles' buddies whose bodies were left in the fields of Europe or on the sands of some Pacific island. Or the guys of my son's generation dying in the Middle East.
Even wikipedia gets it, stating, “Veterans Day is not to be confused with Memorial Day; Veterans Day celebrates the service of all U.S. military veterans, while Memorial Day is a day of remembering the men and women who died while serving.” Celebrate, if you must, our living veterans and service personnel on any or all of the other 364 days of the year, but please set one day aside to commemorate the dead with honor and dignity.
Honor and dignity. “Come to my store and buy a boatload of crap you don't really need in honor of our dead soldiers. It's the American way!” There's no such thing as a “Happy” Memorial Day. Unless you're one of the opportunistic merchants who uses a solemn day of remembrance to make your cash registers ring. Bottom feeders like that are plenty happy, I'm sure. Wonder if any of them would be interested in donating a portion of their profits to a service organization, one that decorates the graves of the fallen? They're making big bucks with their gaudy, flag-waving, faux-patriotic advertisements. Wouldn't it be fair to share a bit with the dead people helping to make them rich? Personally, I won't patronize any establishment's “Memorial Day Blowout” sale. It's disgusting.
Oh, I've got another great idea! Instead of the beach, why don't you pack a picnic lunch and head for a national cemetery? Wouldn't it be fun to slip on your bikini or your speedo, spread a blanket, slather on some sunscreen, and crack a couple of cold ones among the flags fluttering over the graves of the people for whom Memorial Day is really intended? It's their party, after all. Pitiful.
I can't quite figure out whether it's more disgusting, pitiful, or just sad what we've done to Memorial Day over the last hundred years or so. I guess the real push over the edge came about around fifty years ago when Congress in its omniscience decided to strip a number of our traditional holidays of any of their significance by turning them all into excuses for people to have three-day weekends. Washington and Lincoln lost their individual birthdays, Columbus was stripped of his unique day, and Memorial Day became the long, meaningless bacchanal that kicked off the summer season. “Unofficially,” of course. Somehow, Veterans Day survived the onslaught, remaining fixed at the time-honored “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month,” but Memorial Day got the shaft.
I remember Memorial Day when I was a kid. Back before Congress screwed it over. There was no school on that day, regardless of whether it was a Monday or not. Every flag in town flew at half-staff and there were ceremonies in all the cemeteries laying wreaths, flowers, and flags on the graves of the war dead from the Civil War to Korea. (Vietnam was still waiting in the wings.) We had a parade through the middle of town that ended at the town park, where local officials gathered at the bandshell for sometimes long-winded speeches about sacrifice and bravery. And then a military band struck up the Sousa tunes as the crowd reformed into families around the picnic tables. Yes, there were picnics, but they happened as a result of the day, not in place of it. The dead were honored and commemorated first, then the socializing began. I challenge you to walk up to any group “celebrating” this May 25 and ask them if they had given any thought at all to the people whose deaths allowed them to have their party in peace and prosperity.
Did you know that a “National Moment of Remembrance” resolution was passed on December 28, 2000? S.3181, signed by President Clinton, asks that at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day all Americans voluntarily and informally observe in their own way a moment of remembrance and respect, pausing from whatever they are doing for a moment of silence or listening to “Taps.” The impetus behind the resolution supposedly came from the responses of school children who, when asked about the meaning of Memorial Day, replied, “it's the day the pool opens.” So Congress appointed a commission to promote the values of Memorial Day – the day they had so thoroughly screwed up years before – and the resolution was the result.
There is a movement afoot to restore Memorial Day to its original date. You can find out more here: http://www.usmemorialday.org/?page_id=45. In the face of nearly fifty years of partying at the beach, though, I don't know how much traction such a proposition would get.
I'm not saying you shouldn't have a good time on Memorial Day. The men and women who died in service to our country did not do so with the intention that you sit around and mourn all day. That's not the point. But neither is it a day for crass, greedy, commercialism or for thoughtless celebration. And regardless of how popular the notion has become, it's not a day to honor our veterans. If you are among those participating in such inappropriate behaviors, please stop and give the day its due. And do your best to help educate others as to the true meaning and importance of a day that has unfortunately been co-opted for other purposes.
The great orator Daniel Webster once said, "Although no sculptured marble should rise to their memory, nor engraved stone bear record of their deeds, yet will their remembrance be as lasting as the land they honored." And although not as powerful a figure as Webster, Lee Greenwood hit the mark when he wrote, “I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free. And I won’t forget the men who died, who gave that right to me.”
May you have a meaningful Memorial Day.