This blog is about twice the normal length, but today I want to talk about Memorial Day and what it is and what it means and how it started. The Memorial Day I remember the most occurred in Hoosick Falls, NY, the birthplace of my maternal grandmother. I think it was in 1954 or 1955 but I can’t be positive. At any rate, my mom wanted to see where her mom was born (my love for genealogy really may be in my genes). The trip was planned for Memorial Day weekend.
Now, Hoosick Falls is a small town in eastern New York State and consists of only a few blocks of what we old folks would call “downtown.” But, OMG, for its size they had enough banners and flags out to make any veteran or any American proud! And on the day of the Memorial Day Parade everyone and everything and every official and every official vehicle and every horse, tractor, and a few cows participated. To a young girl (as I was back then) it could have been a downtown New York City parade (okay, forget the cows and tractors)!
The roads were jammed with spectators from all over the area, and the parade went on and on and on. Patriotic music filled every corner of the air, people waved those tiny flags, and sang God Bless America, America The Beautiful , and any other patriotic song they knew. People cheered as each car full of veterans drove by and, in a word, it was amazing! This small town’s expression of a nation’s thanks for the service of those who died to protect our freedom was a microcosm of what was happening in hundreds of small towns that day. I felt proud because my Dad had served in the war and while he hadn’t died, I also felt this was a big “Thank You” to him and to all those who contributed to all past wars in some way. In all the excitement, I forgot about Armistice Day, now called Veteran’s Day when living service men and women are honored.
In those days, let freedom ring was every town’s cry!. But, unfortunately, today Memorial Day parades have fallen by the wayside. Traditional observance of Memorial day has diminished over the years. Many Americans nowadays have forgotten the meaning and traditions of Memorial Day. At many cemeteries, the graves of the fallen are increasingly ignored, neglected. Most people no longer remember the proper flag etiquette for the day. The flag is to be flown at half-staff until noon, and at full-staff from noon until sunset. While there are towns and cities that still hold Memorial Day parades, many have not held a parade in decades. Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, is a day of remembrance for those who have died in our nation’s service. some people think the day is for honoring any and all dead, and not just those fallen in service to our country.
There are many stories as to its actual beginnings, with over two dozen cities and towns laying claim to being the birthplace of Memorial Day. There is also evidence that organized women’s groups in the South were decorating graves before the end of the Civil War: While Waterloo N.Y. was officially declared the birthplace of Memorial Day by President Lyndon Johnson in May 1966, it’s difficult to prove conclusively the origins of the day. It is more likely that it had many separate beginnings; each of those towns and every planned or spontaneous gathering of people to honor the war dead in the 1860′s tapped into the general human need to honor our dead. On May 5, 1868, General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, gave his official proclamation to establish a Memorial Day to decorate the graves of fallen soldiers. It was first observed on May 30, 1868 in Washington, DC
My Bishop sometime in the past published the following Memorial Day story which, while it may be apocryphal, helped me to understand how that day might have begun in a way I never did before:
The first Memorial Day was observed by formerly enslaved black people in Charleston, South Carolina. Immediately following the end of the Civil War these freed slaves exhumed the bodies of fallen Union soldiers from a large, unkempt mass grave outside a Confederate prison camp. They reburied the fallen dead, honored the graveyard with an entry arch, and declared it to be sacred ground. Their work was completed in only ten days. On May 1, 1865, a Charleston newspaper reported that a crowd of nearly ten thousand, including 2800 children, processed to the location for a ceremony including sermons, singing, and prayers.
It is not important who was the very first or where it was celebrated. What is important is that Memorial Day was established. Memorial Day is not about division. It is about reconciliation; it is about coming together to honor those who gave their all.
In 1915, inspired by the poem “In Flanders Fields,” Moina Michael replied with her own poem:
We cherish too, the Poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led,
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies.
She then conceived of an idea to wear red poppies on Memorial day in honor of those who died serving the nation during war. She was the first to wear one, and sold poppies to her friends and co-workers with the money going to benefit servicemen in need. In 1922 the VFW began selling silk poppies made by disabled veterans. In 1948 the US Post Office honored Ms Michael for her role in founding the National Poppy movement by issuing a red 3 cent postage stamp with her likeness on it.
This week I Googled “Memorial Day Parade Delaware” and only four parades were listed – Milford, Delaware City, Wilmington, and Newark. And, Newark cancelled their parade due to rain and failed to reschedule it. Sure, we’re a small state, but I’ll bet we have at least 30 small towns that fifty years ago would have had a parade. One town did report having a “Return of Summer” celebration. Memorial Day is now more about sales and shopping, beaches and barbeques!
We aren’t remembering anymore. And yet, we have men and women now dying in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Not to mention the thousands of others serving in our military keeping our defenses up and running. Who will remember them when they fall? Who will parade and sing and show thanks for giving their life for their service? Who?
To help re-educate and remind Americans of the true meaning of Memorial Day, the “National Moment of Remembrance” resolution was passed in Dec 2000 which asks that at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day, for all Americans “To voluntarily and informally observe in their own way a Moment of remembrance and respect, pausing from whatever they are doing for a moment of silence or listening to ‘Taps.”
We truly live in a nano-byte driven world when a whole day of celebration and remembrance has been condensed down to a “moment” at 3:00 p.m. on Memorial Day! Perhaps we should now call it a “Memorial Moment” and go about our business of sales and shopping, barbeques and beaches. Let Freedom Ring, but only for a moment. Sad.