Our town Memorial Day Ceremony, which was held on Monday, May 28th, was very solemn and respectful as befitted the tradition of the day. For my column this month, I would like to write about the origins of Memorial Day and its enduring meaning for all Americans.
I believe Memorial Day presents an opportunity for us to reconnect with America’s core values, to reflect on our history, and to commit to living our lives in a way that shows we appreciate the ultimate sacrifice those soldiers made to protect our freedom. The observance of this day was born of compassion and empathy in 1863. As the Civil War raged, grieving mothers, wives, daughters, sisters, and other loved ones were cleaning confederate soldiers’ graves in Columbus, Miss., and placing flowers on them. They noticed nearby the union soldiers’ graves, dusty, and overgrown with weeds. Grieving for their own fallen soldiers, the confederate women understood that the dead union soldiers buried nearby were the cherished loved ones of families and communities far away. They cleared the tangled brush and mud from those graves as well as their own soldiers’ graves and laid flowers on them too. Soon the tradition of a “Decoration Day” for the graves of fallen soldiers spread. In 1882, the nation observed its first official Memorial Day, a day set aside to remember and honor the sacrifice of those who died in all our nation’s wars. And in 1971, Memorial Day was declared a federal holiday.
For decades, Memorial Day was a day in our nation when stores closed and communities gathered together for a day of parades and other celebrations with a patriotic theme. Memorial Day meant ceremonies at cemeteries around the country, speeches honoring those who gave their lives, the laying of wreaths, the playing of “Taps.”
In some places, these ceremonies continue, as in Secaucus. Those who attend our ceremony remember the true meaning of Memorial Day. You come to revere our fallen comrades by your presence. You understand that on Memorial Day we honor the ideals and values those soldiers stood for and died defending. By your presence, you do an important thing and make a difference. You are not forgetting the sacrifices of our soldiers.
Sadly, many Americans have lost this connection with their history. For a growing percentage of the American people, Memorial Day has come to mean simply a three-day weekend or a major shopping day. Families might still gather for picnics, but for many of them, the patriotic core – the spirit of remembrance – is absent. The following story is an example how our young people, especially, do not understand the meaning of Memorial Day:
In May 1996, Carmella LaSpada met a group of school children on the Mall in Washington DC. She asked them what Memorial Day meant. They all paused and then said, “That’s the day the pool opens.” Ms. LaSpada decided she wanted to show these children and others like them why they are free and who paid for their freedom. She formed the No Greater Love Foundation and started the “Moment of Remembrance” campaign. Her goal is to put the “Memorial” back into Memorial Day. She would like to see all Americans observe one minute of silence at exactly 3 p.m. on Memorial Day, as “Taps” plays, to honor those who sacrificed their lives for us. Carmella LaSpada is one person who started a nationwide campaign.
We in this country owe a great debt of gratitude to those who sacrificed their lives so that we could live free. We can start to pay that debt by not forgetting, by remembering what they did and what they stood for.
The following poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is fitting tribute to those soldiers who died defending our freedoms.
Your silent tents of green
We deck with fragrant flowers;
Yours has the suffering been,
The memory shall be ours.