Contemplating The True Meaning of Memorial Day

May 30, 2016, Edited from an original post dated May 30, 2011

Inevitably, childhood memories are invoked whenever we begin to prepare our Memorial Day celebrations. We all grow up thinking of Memorial Day as the official start of summer, a fun time of picnics and festive parades, hot dogs and watermelon, and some speeches honoring our war heroes thrown in for good measure.

As I contemplated about the true meaning of Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, I wanted to delve a little more deeply into its origins and found out a few things I had either forgotten or never known before and which surprised me.

 Memorial Day was officially proclaimed on May 5, 1868 by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic and was first observed on May 30, 1868, when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. The first state to officially recognize the holiday was New York in 1873 and recognized by all of the northern states by 1890. The South refused to acknowledge the day, honoring their dead on separate days until after World War I.

According to Wikipedia, the origins of this commemorative day held decidedly different viewpoints in the North versus the South:

By 1865 the practice of decorating soldiers’ graves had become widespread in the North. The Memorial Day speech became an occasion for veterans, politicians and ministers to commemorate the war – and at first to recall the atrocities of the enemy. They mixed religion and celebratory nationalism and provided a means for the people to make sense of their history in terms of sacrifice for a better nation, one closer to their God. People of all religious beliefs joined together, and the point was often made that the German and Irish soldiers had become true Americans in the “baptism of blood” on the battlefield. By the end of the 1870s the rancor was gone and the speeches praised the soldiers of both the Union and Confederacy. By the 1950s, the theme was American exceptionalism and duty to uphold freedom in the world.

Across the South associations were founded after the war to establish and care for permanent cemeteries for Confederate soldiers, organize commemorative ceremonies, and sponsor impressive monuments as a permanent way of remembering the Confederate tradition. The earliest Confederate Memorial Day celebrations were simple, somber occasions for veterans and their families to honor the day and attend to local cemeteries. Around 1890, there was a shift from this consolatory emphasis on honoring specific soldiers to public commemoration of the Confederate “Lost Cause”. Changes in the ceremony’s hymns and speeches reflect an evolution of the ritual into a symbol of cultural renewal and conservatism in the South. By 1913, however, the theme of American nationalism shared equal time with the Lost Cause.”

So it appears that the citizens of our country viewed war and its outcomes differently, depending upon which part of the country one was inhabiting, then eventually coming together to honor the war dead as members of one nation. As I watch the political divide in this country between red and blue states, this actually gives me some hope. Now if we can only extend this vision to see ourselves as one world of humans sharing a planet rather than just as inhabitants of individual nations, we might really get somewhere! We are, after all, in the same boat (or on the same planet, however you want to look at it) and we need to help each other if we don’t want it to capsize.

The reason for my deeper contemplation of the meaning of Memorial Day was triggered by an email from PETA, which stated:

For almost 150 years, Memorial Day has served as a national day of remembrance—a day to reflect on the lives of those lost.

As you pause this Memorial Day to remember those who have passed away, we’d like to ask you to think also of the animals who were not able to be saved—particularly those who have perished over this past year.

Please consider making a donation in memory of these animals—whether you’re thinking of the young seal pups clubbed for their fur, the beagles killed after months of painful experiments, the calves who were taken away from their mothers and slaughtered before their first birthday, or the countless other animals who perished because of abuse, neglect, or human greed. Thank you for your remembrance of all animals this Memorial Day.”

Cecil the Lion

~ Cecil the Lion ~

What a great idea! We can memorialize those we’ve lost by donating to our favorite animal charity or one of our local animal rescue organizations! Better yet, we can also honor them by saving another’s life by adopting a new pet from a shelter or rescue group!!

So, on this Memorial Day not only do I wish to personally honor my father and stepfather, both of whom served our country in WWII, I wish to honor all those loving animals – both past and present – which came into my life and served to set me free from my childhood boundaries and taught me how to love unconditionally. Talk about fighting a battle!

  Most especially, In Loving Memory of my beloved hackney pony, Lady, 1973-1998, who truly rescued me!

Then I started thinking, the honoring of those who died in wars and to preserve freedom is an honorable and much-deserved observance. But, what about also honoring those amongst the living who serve us every day? So I wish to also honor all of the teachers, nurses, doctors, veterinarians, firefighters, police, and all those who serve us on a daily basis in our everyday lives which we take for granted. And lest we forget those who serve our planet in the most tumultuous of times, I’m thanking the 120,000 brave men and women from 115 countries serving as UN peacekeepers in 14 of the most difficult regions in the world, rebuilding societies wracked by violence and natural disasters, restoring confidence in people who have known little but war, and bringing peace to some of the most violent conflicts on Earth.

And, while I’m at it, I’d like to honor all those who have touched my life in one way or another—whether a dear friend or family member in the past or in the present, former coworkers, teachers, spiritual leaders, those I’ve connected with on social media, and even those who were antagonists in some way—for you have all formed the person I am today.

So today, Memorial Day, not only do I honor those who have served in wars, I honor and celebrate YOU and your meaningful life, I honor and celebrate our beautiful planet Earth and all who dwell upon it, and the magnificent animal kingdom with which we are fortunate enough to share our planet.

And maybe—just maybe—someday we will have a Memorial Day for those who ended the need for wars and honor the peacemakers—those who strive to prevent strife and war, and who use their influence to bring together opposing parties! For as it states in the bible, Matthew 5:9, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”

May it be so…