This editorial was first published in the Winston-Salem Journal on Memorial Day 2000.
Memorial Day is a delightfully laid-back holiday.
There’s not a lot of advance shopping to do. Gifts are not usually exchanged, cards and flowers not dispatched. The menu is simple picnic fare or something you can throw on the grill. Elaborate preparations are not required.
The weather at this time of year in this part of the country is likely to be pleasant, warm enough to enjoy the outdoors well into the evening, but not nearly as hot and muggy as it might be on the Fourth of July or Labor Day.
Memorial Day is the first long weekend of warm weather, the semi-official start of the summer vacation season. A lot of people make that first trek to the beach or the lake or the mountain cabin and anticipate more outings in the summer months that stretch warmly ahead.
Memorial Day comes in the midst of the joyous time of year that’s usually filled with graduations, weddings, family reunions and other happy reasons for people to get together and celebrate the good things in life.
But at some point in the midst of the lazy, laid-back enjoyment, it’s also good to remember that the original meaning of Memorial Day has to do with death as well as life.
Memorial Day grew out of perhaps this nation’s darkest depths. It was conceived as Decoration Day, a day of remembrance and honor for those who died in the Civil War, that bloody, deadly conflict in which Americans killed one another in staggering numbers.
It’s generally thought of as having originated in 1868 as a commemoration for the Union soldiers who died in that war.
But another story has the origins of Memorial Day going back even earlier, to 1863 while soldiers were still fighting the war.
That account says that the women of Columbus, Miss., began putting flowers on the graves of those who died in both gray and blue uniforms, Confederate and Yankee alike. That’s a nice thought, because Memorial Day should be a day that brings Americans together to reflect about our shared past — good and bad.
However it started, Memorial Day has since come to be thought of as a time to honor all those Americans who have died defending their country in all our wars.
There will be some parades today, some ceremonies at cemeteries, and some people will place flowers on graves and at the nation’s war memorials. There also will be complaints in some quarters that the true meaning of the occasion has been forgotten, that the celebrating and recreation have obscured the decorating and commemoration.
Maybe the answer is that we should remember those who died, by all means, but we should also remember what it was they died for.
We should think about not only Americans’ shared past, but also our shared values and future. We should remember that sacrifices were made to keep this country free and strong.
We should remember how wonderful it is to live in a great, democratic and prosperous society where, on the last Monday in May, people can relax and relish the good things in life.
Dedicating a cemetery for war dead at the bloody battlefield at Gettysburg, Pa., in November 1863, President Abraham Lincoln gave his memorable address that so eloquently combines honor and sorrow for those who died with pride and love for the country they helped preserve. His words are worth repeating this Memorial Day:
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
“Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.
“It is altogether fitting that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate — we cannot consecrate — we cannot hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.
“It is for us, the living, rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.
“It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion; that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom; and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth.”