This is the time in which we honor those who have passed before us–both veterans and those we knew and loved in our families and circle of friends. For many Americans Memorial Day is simply the Monday that provides us with a three day weekend to start to summer–and it is a good way to do it! However, I fear we have lost sight of its original intent and I think that is sad.
We have almost no solemn occasions left in which our entire country pauses to honor those who died that we might have a country at all. I understand the need to value all heritages and countries of birth, but I regret that in doing that we seem to have neglected, to the point of dishonor, the price so many have paid to make the United States of America a country to which millions of people have come for a better life or better opportunities than they had in their original home countries. They may go back when they have gained the financial goals they had for coming here, but the fact still remains, they had to come to this country to do it. And this country has been kept safe by Americans who gave their all, over many generations.
A short history review: Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day and was started to honor those who gave their lives in the Civil War (The War Between the States, as some still call it.) There is ample historical and anecdotal information to indicate the practice of setting aside a day of memory was one of those simulataneous events in many parts of the north and south after the war, although Waterloo, Iowa is listed as the “official birthplace” of the day.
My father’s ancestors fought for the Confederacy and my mother’s ancestors fought for the Union, and I find the history of that war to be tragic no matter which side is considered. In a small town near my birthplace in Georgia there is a Civil War monument, erected in 1903, which reads,
“May we never forget the cause for which our honored dead gave their lives and sacrificed their futures. Though their motives be maligned we know the love of family, country, fellow-man and a just God that beat in their hearts. The purity of their thoughts need no justification and time will shine upon their precious smiles and valiant deeds.”
I have a newspaper article from an Indianapolis, Indiana newspaper in 1908, which I found between the pages of an old book I added to my collection not long ago. I was thrilled to find a treasure within a treasure! The headline reads, “Plea Is Made For Sons Of Veterans To Assist.” It was an announcement asking all the veterans of the Grand Army (the Union army), and their male descendants, to participate fully in a solemn day of remembrance on Memorial Day. It concludes with this paragraph from the official proclamation:
Cemeteries shall be marked with flags, and flowers will be strewn on graves of the fallen comrades of the days of the civil war. And in every other way possible the members of the Grand Army of the Republic shall be made to understand that their own flesh and blood will never allow Memorial day to be diverted from its original purpose, and that after the Grand Army is no more, their sons and grandsons and great grandsons in all succeeding generations shall keep fresh and green in the memories of rising generations the illustrious deeds of valor and patriotism of the heroes of the civil war, who saved this nation from being rent asunder by the armed forces of rebellion.
Incidentally, I went to the Indianapolis Star newspaper online, to see how they were remembering their honored ancestors. The front page was about the Indy 500 and rising gasoline prices. There was a small link at the top with the question, “Do you want to thank a veteran?” I went to that forum and found almost all the comments were humorous, “I want to thank a veternarian.” Or, they were against the current political and war situation, so they were flippant or viciously rude. The few serious comments were given insulting responses.
You and I can’t change anyone–especially not those who are so lacking in decency and honor that our efforts would be mocked, or so lacking in knowledge about history that they do not understand the debt they owe to others. But, we can do our own part to remember and honor those who gave their lives, no matter what our political or philosophical views. We owe them that.
The photograph at the top of this post is of my brother, Julian R. Lewis, who wrote the poem for the Denver Police Department memorial. It is fitting for many causes:
When Duty Called
When duty called, there was no thought but answer,
No question but the task that must be done.
Though death their final payment for the victory.
For honor was the battle fought and won.
No monument stands higher than their valor,
No words replace the loss of heroes, slain,
But if their names, remembered, give us courage,
Their sacrifice shall not have been in vain.
I hope you had a weekend that marked the beginning of Summer in a good way. If you didn’t visit a cemetery and honor, at least in your thoughts, those who gave their lives for our country, do that sometime soon. It is a good habit for us and our children–and perhaps in that way it will be a habit for our children’s children and their children, as well.