Tears welled up in my eyes during church service this morning, and I had to fight with myself to keep from outright weeping. The day before Memorial Day, the pastor was praying for our men and women in uniform across the globe and for the families of those who have given all, those we honor each Memorial Day.
Memorial Day, the fourth Monday of each May, is devoted to remembering all those who have made the supreme sacrifice, who paid the ultimate price, who died in service to their country and our freedoms. The pastor included those men and women who currently are in uniform, because he obviously hopes and prays they all return home safely, that none of them join the many thousands of fallen heroes we reverently salute each year at this time.
A lot of people do mix up those special days that we set aside to salute Americans who serve their nation or have served. We salute today's troops on Armed Forces Day, military veterans on Veterans Day and those who made the supreme sacrifice or have passed on on Memorial Day. I wish more people would understand the specific purpose behind each day, but I know they mean no disrespect when they don't.
Some folks don't get it at all when Memorial Day weekend rolls around each year. I mean, they hardly even think about the reason behind the holiday. To them, it's that welcomed three-day weekend, marking the beginning of the summer-vacation season. It means new-auto sales, marked-down mattresses, time to get together with friends and neighbors and grill hot dogs and drink some brewskies.
I saw one of those mattress-sale ads on television this morning. This past week, I saw TV commercials for more than one auto dealership, blabbing about their Memorial Day deals. In a complete switch, the Mungenast Auto Family – that's a family-owned lineup of automobile dealerships in St. Louis – ran a commercial that pitched no car sales. It simply featured some photos of Americans in uniform, and it announced that it's dealerships would be closed on Memorial Day so that employees could be with their families and honor those who gave their lives for their country. I think I know where I'm going to buy my next set of wheels.
I respect Memorial Day. To me, it's the most important holiday of the year. On Memorial Day, I look back on the times I had with my fellow Marines who didn't make it home from Vietnam and from Lebanon. And I salute them and all the Americans throughout our nation's history who died marching in harm's way.
The history of Memorial Day goes back to the years following the Civil War. It was called Decoration Day then and was established by the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of veterans of the Civil War. The observance was to honor the Civil War dead and was officially announced by the group's national commander, Gen. John Logan, on May 5, 1868. Declared Logan: "The 30th of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land."
New York was the first state to adopt the holiday, in 1873, and over the next few years, all northern states came to officially recognize Decoration Day. Southern states would have no part of it until after World War I, when the holiday recognized those killed in action in all wars. Decoration Day eventually became Memorial Day over the years, but it wasn't officially named Memorial Day until enacted by law in 1967.
When I was growing up in my little hometown of Lebanon, Ill., Memorial Day was a big deal. A lot of World War II veterans were members of American Legion Post 283. Just before Memorial Day, the women of the American Legion Auxiliary sold the traditional red poppies, and the men placed American flags on the gravesites of veterans in College Hill Cemetery in our town and the Catholic Cemetery just north of town. It was a time to honor not only those who had died in combat, but also those who had served their country and had since passed on.
The tradition now continues, and I was at the cemetery yesterday with several other members of the local American Legion post, placing a flag at the gravesite of each veteran. It took us all day. We planted flags at so many headstones. I felt humbled in the presence of so many who gave so much to our nation.
At the end of the day, I was sunburned, tired and sore, but I think we all felt honored. We put our leftover flags in the back of one member's pickup truck and bid farewell to each other. Before leaving, I looked back across College Hill Cemetery, at all those flags we placed and the flowers left by families and dear ones. It struck me how the cemetery evoked such poignancy and sorrow, yet such decency and beauty.
Their bodies are buried in peace, but their name liveth for evermore.
– Ecclesiaticus, 44:14