“Memorial” from the Latin “memorilis” belonging to memory.
Over the years the true meaning of Memorial Day has faded more and more from public consciousness. It began as a solemn day of mourning in honor of our Civil War dead. It has degenerated into a celebration of barbeques, baseball, and "top 100 songs of all time" on the radio.
Ironic isn't it, that the nation has forgotten the meaning of a national day of remembrance?
So as you sit on a beach this weekend slathering sunscreen, or dancing between raindrops, consider the following:
In 1865, Henry C. Welles, a druggist in the village of Waterloo, NY, mentioned at a social gathering that honor should be shown to the dead of the Civil War by decorating their graves.
Townspeople adopted the idea wholeheartedly. Wreaths and bouquets were made for each grave. The village was decorated with flags at half-mast, evergreen boughs and black streamers.
The commander of the Grand Army of the Republic issued the first national recognition of Memorial Day in 1868. This was General Order No. 11 establishing "Decoration Day" (because the idea was to decorate the graves of soldiers.)
Decoration Day was first observed on 30 May 1868, when flowers were placed on the graves of soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. When the Civil War was raging the location of Arlington cemetery was a carefully chosen act of retribution. It was the confiscated estate of Robert E. Lee. Graves were place all the way up to his doorstep.
The South initially refused to acknowledge the day, honoring their dead on separate days. Several southern states continue to have an additional, separate day for honoring the Confederate war dead: January 19 in Texas, April 26 in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi; May 10 in South Carolina; and June 3 (Jefferson Davis' birthday) in Louisiana and Tennessee.
After World War I, the holiday was changed from honoring the Civil War dead, to honoring Americans who died fighting in any war.
It was now called Memorial Day.
During World War 1, some particularly bloody fighting occurred in Flanders along the French-Belgian border. A Canadian Doctor, John McCrae, visited the battlefield and noticed the only sign of life on the scarred landscape was the resilient little poppy. He penned a famous poem on a page torn from an autopsy book. It was entitled "In Flanders Fields."
In Flanders Fields
By: Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD Canadian Army (1872-1918)
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.
The poem inspired Moina Michael an American War Secretary with the YMCA, she was moved by McCrae's work and 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 sold poppies to her friends with the money going to benefit servicemen in need. Later a Madam Guerin from France learned of this new custom, when she returned to France she made artificial red poppies to raise money for the war orphaned children and widowed women. This tradition spread to other countries.
And it's why you will see men and women from American Legion Posts selling little plastic red poppies at street corners this weekend. On TV you may also see images of the soldiers of the 3d U.S. Infantry as they place small American flags at each of the more than 260,000 gravestones at Arlington. . The commemorations at Arlington on Memorial Day are a lasting connection back to its Civil War origins.
In 1966 President Lyndon Johnson signed a proclamation that changed the observance date from May 30th and made it into a 3 day weekend.
Many Veterans groups contend that the weekend has weakened the meaning of the day. Turning it from a day of taking stock to one of taking off for the beach. From an end of life to a beginning of Summer occasion. In 1999 Senator Inouye, a World War II veteran, introduced a bill to the Senate to restore the observance back to May 30th.
Instead, the "National Moment of Remembrance" resolution was passed on Dec 2000 which asks that on May 30th at 3 p.m. local time, 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."
“Taps” is another Civil War connection. The 24-note piece is a variation on a French military bugle call to tell soldiers to cork their bottles, close their taps and go to bed. During the Civil War the Union Army adapted it for their lights out command at bedtime and it quickly found its way into funeral services. It acquired lyrics along the way.
Day is done, gone the sun, from the Lakes from the hills from the sky, all is well, safely rest, God is nigh.
Fading light, dims the sight, And a star gems the sky gleaming bright, From afar, drawing nigh, falls the night.
Thanks and praise, For our days, Neath the sun, Neath the stars, Neath the sky,
As we go, This we know, God is nigh."
If you do decide to honor our fallen, New York is awash with war memorials. There's the Vietnam Veterans memorial on Water Street in the Financial District. A monument to Korean War soldiers in Battery Park (financed by a Korean Electronics company.) There's a World War I monument on Fifth Ave just outside Central Park across from the Frick Museum, a memorial to The Spanish-American war at the 59th Street entrance to Central Park (paid for by William Randolph Hearst who played a major role in their deaths.). At 59th and Fifth you'll find Grand Army Plaza named for the Civil War's Grand Army of the Republic, as well as Grand Army Plaza at the entrance to Brooklyn's Prospect Park.
It doesn’t really matter where you do your remembering, just that you do.
So this weekend don't forget the sunscreen and the Kingsford charcoal, and try to remember the fallen as well.