A small piece of land in Southwest Georgia marks the final resting place of about 20,000 men and women who served our nation. Nearly 13,000 of those died on those grounds in the 1860’s during the civil war. Last weekend, members of Scout troops and other organizations placed a small American flag by each tombstone at the Andersonville National Cemetery.
What we now know as Memorial Day was first commemorated after the civil war and was originally called Decoration Day. At the Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia on, May 30, 1868, then Congressman and future President James Garfield, addressed a crowd of 5,000 gathered. His opening words at that address sum up what Memorial Day means.
“I am oppressed with a sense of the impropriety of uttering words on this occasion. If silence is ever golden, it must be here beside the graves of fifteen thousand men, whose lives were more significant than speech.”
The focus of the May 30 Memorial Day was initially on the Union soldiers who had died. With the onset of World War I, Americans began to recognize those who gave their lives in all wars, not just the civil war, and not just the Union army.
Decoration Day on May 30 was established as an official holiday for the District of Columbia and federal employees in 1888. Individual states also recognized the date. In 1968, President Johnson signed the Uniform Holiday Act to establish the recognition of Memorial Day on the last Monday in May.
The late Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii enlisted in the Army in 1943 when Japanese-Americans were given the right to serve in the US armed forces. He was shot in the stomach and lost his arm in battle and was eventually awarded the Medal of Honor.
Until his death, each year, Senator Inouye introduced legislation to restore Memorial Day to the 30th of May instead of the last Monday in May. He gave his reasoning in the 1999 introduction of his resolution:
“we have lost sight of the significance of this day to our nation. Instead of using Memorial Day as a time to honor and reflect on the sacrifices made by Americans in combat, many Americans use the day as a celebration of the beginning of summer.”
I believe that there has been a blurring of the understanding of the purpose and meaning of Memorial Day. Future President Garfield said that he felt a “sense of the impropriety of uttering words on this occasion.”
Not only has the meaning of Memorial Day been diluted with a focus on the start of summer. It is also becoming a common practice to recognize and give thanks to veterans and those who are serving on Memorial Day.
The old song, “Give Me Flowers While I’m Living,” perhaps describes the motive of the practice. The intent is to remember those who died and say thank you to those who are still alive.
As a veteran, I appreciate the intent. With deepest respect to those who turn attention to veterans on Memorial Day, I want to gently and humbly, point the respect and honor away from veterans.
There is a day for veterans on November 11. That is the day for those who served their country and came home alive.
Memorial Day is the day to remember those who served their country and did not come back alive. Some never returned home at all.
As I walked through this small plot of hallowed ground in Southwest Georgia, I thought of the men who left home to serve their nation and never returned.
The National Cemeteries across our nation and in places like Normandy, France are all reminders of those who paid the ultimate price. I paused to remember on the last Monday in May. I will again pause and remember on May 30.
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