Every Memorial Day, I remember that popular saying about how you can tell a lot about a country by how they honor their war dead.
As a kid growing up in the Midwest, Memorial Day for me was always a time for parades, family barbecues and a trip to the cemetery to put flags and flowers on the graves of relatives.
The parades were, in the eyes of this small town boy, spectacular. They snaked down Main Street past the high school, pausing briefly in front of the 56-foot-tall Civil War memorial monument, down through the city business district.
I remember standing at the curb waving a tiny American flag on a stick, paying more attention to the marching bands and colorful floats than to the monument.
It was only later that I came to appreciate what it stood for.
Who was that granite soldier in the at rest position on top of that high column? He represented all the local county soldiers who had died in the Civil War.
The very first Memorial Day was celebrated on May 5, 1868, just after the end of the Civil War.
The official proclamation reads: “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.”
Eventually the holiday was moved to the last Monday of May, which is when we celebrate it today.
On Memorial Day, we honor those who have given their lives in service to the nation.
Remembering the Fallen
Nearly 500,000 military personnel died in the Civil War itself. Down through our history, many thousands more gave their all to keep the nation from perishing.
- Revolutionary War: 25,000
- War of 1812: 2260
- Indian Wars: 1,000
- Mexican War: 13,283
- Civil War: 620,000
- Spanish American War: 2446
- World War I: 116,516
- World War II: 405,399
- Korean War: 36,000
- Vietnam War: 58,220
- Persian Gulf War: 1565
- Global War On Terror: 7000
Memorial Day is a day to look back and honor the price paid for the freedoms we enjoy today. It’s not veterans day—that’s in November. Nor is it just the beginning of Summer.
It’s a day that matters.
How to Celebrate Memorial Day
The Memorial Day federal holiday is one of those holidays that bring families together. So for most of us, that will be our major observation of the holiday.
But there’s more we can do to make it memorable, both to ourselves and to our families.
Visit a local veterans cemetery. On this day, it’s not unusual to see families visiting their local cemetery to place flowers on the graves of relatives–or even total strangers–who died in wartime.
What a “teachable moment” might this be to teach your children about some of the values that we, as Americans, hold close to our hearts?
Our flag doesn’t fly because the wind moves it, but because of the last breath of each soldier who died protecting it.
Hang the flag at half-staff. Many people demonstrate their support of the military by hanging the American flag off their front porches on this day. What a great reminder to neighbors about the true meaning of this day!
By the way, did you know that federal guidelines recommend hanging the flag at half-staff until noon, and then at full-staff till sundown?
Moment of Silence: In the year 2000, President Clinton signed the “National Moment of Remembrance Act” into law. It encourages all Americans to pause for a moment of silence at 3 pm on Memorial Day to remember and honor all who have died in service to the nation.
Wear a Memorial Day Poppy. Every year I run into people giving away poppies on Memorial Day (usually at the Mall or Supermarket). Poppies were first connected to this day in the 1915 Lt. Col. John McCrae poem, “In Flanders Fields.”
“In Flanders fields, the poppies blow.
Between the crosses, row on row.
That mark our place, And in the sky,
We are the dead.”
Later, the American Legion and the VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) picked up on the poppy as a memorial to the war dead and helped make it a popular tradition to wear poppies on this day.
Memorial Day: A Time to Remember and Respect
Sure, this is a day when the family gathers together for hot dogs and cold beers. But we cannot let it end at that.
I believe Author Tamra Bolton said it well: “This is the day we pay homage to all those who didn’t come home. This is not veterans day; it is not a celebration. It is a day of solemn contemplation over the cost of freedom.”
Let us not take for granted the very things for which we should be most grateful.