Vol. 10, No. 21

May 23-29, 2002

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The Real Meaning of Memorial Day

Decoration Day was the name our grandparents called May 30, and the friendliness of carrying garden peonies and roses to our relatives down the road took the terror out of cemeteries. The weather was usually grand, the flowers sweet, and the children got to know their elders not only by the stories told coming and going but also by direct graveside address. We furthered the acquaintance by tiptoeing among the mounds, careful not to offend the dead by tromping on their bones, as we made up the rest of stories suggested by name, date and inscription.

But that was long ago. Decoration Day has since become Memorial Day, and was then moved from May 30 to the more convenient last Monday in May. Now it stands as little more than the symbolic gateway to summer.

The year behind us makes a good case for reviving the old custom of honoring our dead heroes.

Originally, of course, Decoration Day was devoted to the young men who died in America’s many wars. The dates on their tombstones were poignantly short, and even if we didn’t know them and were too young to know those wars ourselves, we shed tears for the brevity of those young men’s lives.

But families — perhaps especially families like ours who’d borne too few men to mourn firsthand that style of loss — used the day to honor other sorts of heroism. We remembered, too, the mother dead in childbirth, the workers sacrificed to the nation’s ambition, the babies who died hungry, the schoolteacher burned while saving her pupils, the great-grandmother who raised three generations in her long life.

Since September 11, we’ve had reason to reflect on many styles of heroism. The destiny of that day has showed us with new clarity that all of us — whether or not we fight on the battlefield — are soldiers in our nation’s cause. We’ve understood that each act of our daily lives builds a stronger democracy — just as we now know that we might be called up at any time for tasks that demand heroism we never imagined in ourselves.

The realization that we are dedicated to a purpose that is beyond ourselves even as it fully engages us: That’s what stirs us when we hear the phrase United We Stand. That’s the vision we are flying our flags for.

We have many heroes who demand our remembrance this Memorial Day. In honoring them for what they’ve done, we challenge ourselves to follow their example, living well whether we live large or small.

A cemetery is a good place to pay our respects. No matter if we’ve moved far away from the graveyards of our kin. The stories we trace on headstones at historic St. James in Lothian or the military cemetery in Annapolis will do just as well to remind us that we’re all in this together.

Be sure to take some flowers when you go.

Copyright 2002
Bay Weekly