It is all too commonplace to think of Memorial Day as the semiofficial beginning of the summer vacation season. The attitude was reinforced by Congress in 1971, when it was pegged to the last Monday in May — to make for a nice three-day weekend — rather than the traditional date of May 30.
It is bittersweet to note, however, with the ongoing war in Iraq, that the original purpose of the day has become more predominant in many Americans’ minds.
Memorial Day, of course, is the day set aside to honor those who gave, as Abraham Lincoln put it, “the last full measure of devotion” in service to the country in military conflicts.
Its precise origins are a little murky, in that dozens of cities and towns set aside a day to honor those killed in the Civil War, or the War Between the States, by decorating their graves with flowers, flags and other symbols of respect.
When officially proclaimed by Gen. John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, in 1868, the observance was called Decoration Day.
By the end of the century all the northern states recognized Decoration Day, but most southern states chose not to acknowledge it, preferring to honor their dead on different days. After World War I, the commemoration changed from honoring those who died in the Civil War to honoring those who died in any war.
Traditionally, many cities held parades on Memorial Day, but that practice has declined somewhat. It was also traditional to visit cemeteries and place flags and flowers on the graves of military people. That tradition deserves revival. One lady e-mailed a Memorial Day Web site to say she now visits a cemetery on Memorial Day with an armload of flowers and places one on any military grave that has no flowers.
In 2000 Congress passed a resolution endorsing a National Moment of Remembrance, urging all Americans to pause at 3 p.m. on Memorial Day and remember, in whatever way seems most appropriate, those who gave their lives in service to the country.
Whatever one’s attitude toward the current war, those who have served in it, and especially those who have given their lives, deserve honor and respect from all Americans.
We can also honor their memory by resolving in the future that our beloved country will become involved only in wars that reflect the highest traditions of love of liberty, prudent persistence in its pursuit and defense against aggression.