Happy Memorial Day.
Frankly, it’s an interesting turn of phrase.
Memorial Day commemorates those who have died in service of our country. It is sometimes confused or conflated with Veterans’ Day, which is the 11th of November when we remember all those who have served in the US armed forces. I have veterans in my family, and they deserve our recognition as well. We also have Armed Forces Day, observed earlier in May, when we honor those currently serving in our military.
But Memorial Day focuses specifically on those who served and who died during their service. So saying ”Happy” Memorial Day might seem a bit incongruous; in fact, for many who have personally suffered the loss of a loved one who was serving, it can be a painful day of remembrance. We must all be mindful of that as we celebrate the end of the school year and the beginning of summer – and especially if we, as we are all tempted to do, take advantage of the endless commercialization of our national holidays and get a Memorial Day sale discount.
A grieving parent or child or sibling doesn’t really care to hear about a new mattress.
We must also be careful if we attempt to discuss the origins of Memorial Day as a national holiday. It was officially named by President Lyndon Johnson in 1966 as having been inspired by a commemoration at a cemetery in Waterloo, NY. That has since been shown to be – questionable. Some have attempted to tie the observance to an 1865 parade of 10,000 people, including recently freed slaves who had reburied Union Soldiers recovered from a Confederate prison mass grave. While the Charleston, SC, event and its honorable intentions has been documented, it is also unclear that it begat Memorial Day.
As with so many things in our country, there is a (to my mind, unnecessary) divide between people in the Civil War “North and South” that continues even today, sadly reflected in competing stories of the origins of what should be a near-sacred national remembrance. Wikipedia divides into two sections to discuss the diverging origin stories, both revolving around “Decoration Days” honoring the dead with flowers at cemeteries. The arguments continue to create tensions even today.
A good portion of that discussion centers around what it means to be Patriotic. Instead of honoring our flag (and those who fought and died to preserve the ideals it stands for), we wave it aggressively at one another, trying to demonstrate our greater love for our (shared) country than “the other side” – when in fact, there are so many things on which we agree, and are on the same side.
So on this day of remembrance, let us stand or kneel together in admiration of those who made the ultimate sacrifice so that we might continue to refine who we are “in order to form a more perfect union.” Then after recognizing them, maybe we can be happy that their gift to us is that we can be happy to live in a great nation, working to make it ever greater. We can do it, moving forward together.