It’s perhaps fitting that the nation’s memory of Memorial Day’s origins are somewhat murky. After all, a day of solemn remembrance has morphed into just another day off. If we don’t much remember those memorialized by the day, it’s not likely that we will recall the original reasons for setting the day aside, either.
Memorial Day creation stories are as diverse as the interests championing them. African Americans point to the practice of freedmen decorating the graves of the Union war dead as the inspiration for the holiday. A recent New York Times piece detailed the competing claims of Columbus, Georgia and Columbus, Mississippi, places where Southern ladies draped the burial grounds of the Confederate dead in flowers, for inventing the annual commemoration ritual. In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson further confused matters by proclaiming Waterloo, New York as the birthplace of the holiday on the centennial of the town’s first event commemorating the Civil War fallen.
We know when Memorial Day started. We really don’t know where it started. The inevitability of spontaneous demonstrations of sympathy for the departed heroes from a war that claimed 620,000 men make the day’s multiple nativity stories all quite plausible. An event as traumatic as the Civil War couldn’t be forgotten. It simply had to be remembered.
American families back then couldn’t escape the horror of a war that put ten percent of the population under arms and put two percent of the population underground. The ten-year-long Afghanistan campaign’s 1,984 American deaths don’t even approach the number of Americans killed at Cold Harbor in ten minutes. This turn of events is something to celebrate and not mourn. But leaving much of the nation out of its wars does leave a nation unaware, and to a degree unappreciative, of the great sacrifices made to found a republic, liberate slaves, rid whole countries of totalitarian oppressors, and kill the terrorists who would kill us. The current lack of a shared sacrifice makes Americans less reverential of past sacrifices. We are not all in this together.
Losing a loved one in war makes every day Memorial Day. Not experiencing such a profound loss makes Memorial Day like every day. In either case, the day doesn’t change one’s perspective.
What, precisely, do we remember on Memorial Day?
We don’t recall that it was observed on May 30 (and not the last Monday of the month) until 1971 or that it was originally called Decoration Day. That holiday’s name described the day’s holy activity, decorating the resting places of men who had paid the ultimate sacrifice to state and nation. And in the process of honoring sacred ground one couldn’t help but reflect upon their service, to memorialize as Decoration Day’s Memorial Day successor calls for in its name.
In the same way that “Decoration Day” conveys something very specific, “Memorial Day” announces its generic blahness. When we hear “Memorial Bridge,” “Memorial Stadium,” or “Memorial Boulevard,” we’re not even likely to wonder, “Memorial to whom?” Memorial Day fits this pattern. The blandness is hardly unique to the holiday more evocative of the Indy 500 than the Union 360,000. Armistice Day becomes Veterans Day. Independence Day becomes the Fourth of July. Washington’s Birthday becomes Presidents Day. Like clichés and euphemisms, the replacement names dull thoughts rather than provoke them. Stripped of meaning, Memorial Day makes us forget what we are remembering.
The Southern ladies and freed slaves who paid tribute to the Civil War’s dead generally did so without any preexisting relationship with the slain soldiers. With hospitals and battlefields far from home, final resting places often were, too. Iraq and Afghanistan aside, the nation’s war dead are now chronologically far from home. That distance won’t stop the grateful few who visit cemeteries today to decorate the graves of veterans they had never met. Memorial Day is about making connections with people with whom one has no direct connection.
The holiday’s date and name have changed. But the spirit of gratitude and respect that motivated the first Memorial Day remains, even if among only a remnant. Traditions are harder to kill then men on the battlefield.