Memorial Day is the unofficial start of the summer for Americans. But in the midst of our much-needed change of season and the camaraderie, long overdue for barbecues and potato salad, we cannot lose sight of why we have this holiday.
Memorial Day became an official Federal holiday in 1971 when President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo, New York, the birthplace of the holiday which first took place there in 1866. Southern States had been commemorating the sacrifice of Confederate Soldiers immediately after the Civil War with many towns and communities offering prayers, remembrances, and solemn parades before the Waterloo commemoration. And, before that, the ancient Greeks and Romans frequently honored their war dead following the first recorded event in 431, B.C.E. when the Athenian General, Pericles, gave his famous “Funeral Oration of the Dead,” still studied in Greek rhetorical literature.
Some more recent scholars have suggested that Americans seem to be drifting from the real meaning of Memorial Day. Many of us are mixing the frivolity of welcoming summer with this event or misplacing patriotic appreciation with national jingoism. Neither represents the reason for the holiday.
In its raw, essential depth of meaning, Memorial Day commemorates the sacrifice many men and women made on active duty protecting our nation from harm. They died in the salty brine of oceans; they plunged to the earth in fighter planes and drowned in the blood that spilled in foxholes. As one quote says, “We don’t know them all, but we owe them all.” This is a day of prayerful gratitude for those sacrifices from the Civil War to all succeeding wars that took our young and promising Americans. I remember every war since World War II and two of my brothers served as we entered the Vietnam War. A brother-in-law slogged through the jungles of Vietnam. I remember my mother pleading for peace in her prayer all that time. Since 2000, the United States has practiced a National Moment of Remembrance at 3p.m. each Memorial Day. I’m wondering if the best way to honor these valiant souls is to pray for what is often precarious and vulnerable and that is – peace.
I’m thinking of a Canadian surgeon who served as a medic in World War I tending to the wounded on fields where the dead were strewn about like leaves after a windstorm. John McCrae’s truck made its way through Ypres, Belgium, where the fields were brilliant with red poppies, a type of weed, also strewn about as carelessly as the bodies of the soldiers. The poppies were growing over and around the graves bearing crude wooden crosses for as far as the eye could see. The contrast of the brilliance of nature and the darkness of death captured McCrae’s heart and mind and he immediately composed his famous poem which I am including below. He had just buried a close friend the day before who had died in action. Flanders Fields extended from the north to west of France and is the sight where many battles took the lives of 600,000 men. Today, we are told that the poppies are significantly diminished due to climate change. We must never let the tragic history of this war and the sacrifice of so many diminish along with the poppies.
Spend some time tonight praying for all who have died in any war.
Can you resolve to be observant and informed about the wars going on in this world at this point in time?
Carry that information into action. You can contact Congress; you can join peace organizations.
In Flanders Fields by John McCrae
In Flanders Fields, the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow.
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders Fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.