By DR. LARRY MOSES
No one asked me but… Memorial Day is coming up. I know most of you celebrate it on Monday, May 28, but for us purists, Memorial Day is May 30. My wife and I have already decorated the graves we feel a responsibility for, as we will be out of town on the 28.
In 1968, the federal government passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which moved four holidays to a specified Monday so we could all have a three-day weekend. It took a few years but all fifty states now comply with the law.
When I was a kid, the holiday was called Decoration Day and while it was originally designed to commemorate the fallen of the Civil War, it now has evolved to cover all those who have fallen in the defense of the country.
As I was growing up, I do not remember a great emphasis on this holiday in my family. My father was killed in action in Beho, Belgium in 1945. He was finally buried in a small town thirty or so miles from where I grew up. I do not recall visiting the grave site after the initial burial in 1948.
My older sisters, after getting married and going out on their own, religiously observed Memorial Day at our parents grave site. My sisters have all passed and now the honor of maintaining the grave has passed to the son of my eldest sister. He will be grave side on Memorial Day. His mother is buried in the same cemetery that holds our parents who died way too young.
While my family did not observe the holiday to any great extent, it was observed with great vigor in my wife’s family. My wife continues the tradition as she recruits me each year to help her honor not only fallen warriors but also others as we decorate graves.
Here are some interesting facts about Memorial Day. This may or may not be new information for you. Freed slaves may have been the first to observe Memorial Day in Charlestown, South Carolina, as early as 1865. By 1890 many states had adopted Decoration Day as a state holiday. It became an official federal holiday in 1971. It was originally established by the veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic (the Union Army) to commemorate their fallen Civil War comrades. The original Memorial Day (Decoration Day) speeches stressed the need for reconciliation.
However, since the end of the American Civil War there has been a separate holiday observed in several Southern states to honor the estimated 258,000 Confederate soldiers and sailors who died fighting against the Union. The Confederate Memorial Day was called Confederate Heroes Day in Texas, and Confederate Decoration Day in Tennessee. The holiday was promoted by Southern state legislatures after the Civil War to honor the sacrifice of those who gave their lives fighting for a cause in which they believed. In many states the Confederate Memorial Day is observed on April 26th, a day marking the surrender of the last major Confederate field army at Bennett Place in 1865. This holiday is still widely, but unofficially, observed in some Southern states today and it remains an official state holiday in South Carolina, Mississippi, and Alabama.
After World War I, Memorial Day was transformed from a holiday honoring not only the Civil War but to one honoring all who died in the defense of our country. In 1968, the May 30th date of celebration was changed to the last Monday in May. While President, Bill Clinton decreed that all Americans should pause at 3 p.m. eastern time (if I have my time zones correct that would be 1 p.m. for us) for a moment of silence to honor those who gave their lives defending our freedom.
Another tradition of Memorial Day is the selling of red poppies by the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars. The donations go to helping veterans throughout the land. This tradition originated after WWI and was based on the poem, In Flanders Fields written by John McCrea in tribute to the fallen warriors of WWI.
In Flanders fields the poppies
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns
We are the dead; short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset
Loved and were loved and now
In Flanders Field
Take up your quarrel with the foe
To you from failing hands we
The torch; be yours to hold it high
If ye break faith with those who
We shall not sleep, though
In Flanders fields.
A more recent tradition has been the placing of coins on the headstones of our fallen soldiers.The origin of the tradition, like the meaning behind it, is still up for debate. But many people believe it started in America during the Vietnam War. Leaving a coin is a way to say you value the soldier’s sacrifice. Leaving a penny indicated that while you had no connection with the soldier you just appreciated his ultimate sacrifice for your freedom. A nickel left stated that you had trained with the soldier, a dime is left for those you served with. Leaving a quarter indicates you were with the person when he was killed. The money is usually collected and donated to the upkeep of the cemetery.
This may well have been started by a Vietnam Veteran who read Roman history. During the Roman Empire, fellow soldiers would insert a coin into the mouth of a fallen comrade to ensure they could pay for passage across the “River Styx” into the afterlife.
While the government has decided that the three-day weekend is an important time for families to get together I can only hope everyone will take some time from their barbeque to pay tribute to those who have made it possible to fire up the grill this Memorial Day. That fact that you can read this column should cause you to pause and thank a teacher. The fact that you are reading it in English should cause you to pause before a soldier’s grave and give thanks for his sacrifice.
Thought of the week… “My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
— John F. Kennedy