What Does Memorial Day Mean?

by Jim Conner, Assistant to the Executive Pastor

Memorial Day has just passed and most families enjoyed cook-outs, family reunions, short trips and many just enjoyed time off from work and a 3-day weekend. Sounds like fun. However, how many of the millions of citizens enjoying this holiday realize what it stands for or even know of its humble beginnings?

The practice of decorating graves with flowers is an ancient custom, but a group of American Civil War veterans took this gesture and made an impact by decorating the graves of fallen comrades. This act to honor those who lost their lives in the defense of our nation spread through many states and was soon a national tradition.  

Did you know Memorial Day was first referred to as Decoration Day, stemming from this annual event? “Decoration Day,” a day to decorate the graves of fallen soldiers. The American Civil War claimed the lives of more than 600,000 soldiers. More than that of World War I and World War II combined. Decoration Day became a special day to honor the sacrifices of our war heroes. It was a specific act to honor what the dead had done. John 15:13 says it best, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

President Ulysses S. Grant presided over the first Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery. The main speaker was James A. Garfield who said, “I am oppressed with a sense of the impropriety of uttering words on this occasion….If silence is ever golden, it must be beside the graves of fifteen-thousand men, whose lives were more significant than speech, and whose death was a poem the music of which can never be sung.”

By the 20th century our country found many celebrations for Union and Confederate causes. Most of these fell on different days and periods during the calendar year. It was not until after the 2nd World War that most of these holidays and traditions merged, and as a nation we began using the title Memorial Day to memorialize the sacrifice of all Americans who fell during battles. One example of an event that is celebrated on Memorial Day is the annual Ride for Freedom by Rolling Thunder. It is held on each Memorial Day weekend in Washington, D.C.

Until the congressional Uniform Monday Holiday Act was legislated in 1968, Memorial Day was always observed as the beginning of summer, May 30th. School was out, and families started their vacation travels and graves were decorated all around our nation. Labor Day, on the converse, marked the end of summer and return to school.

As a veteran I learned not to confuse Memorial Day with Veterans’ Day. Memorial Day is a day to remember the American men and women who died while serving, while Veterans’ Day celebrates the service of all American servicemen and veterans. But it is not so for the average American. A Gallup Poll revealed that only 28% of Americans knew the true meaning of Memorial Day. After learning this in 2000, Congress passed The National Moment of Remembrance. The Act called for Americans to pause at 3 p.m. for one minute in an act of national unity. The time 3 p.m. was chosen because it is the time when most Americans are enjoying their freedoms on the national holiday.

During my military career it was always my honor to stand with my fellow servicemen and honor the sacrifices of our fallen. On Memorial Day our base flag would be raised briskly to the top of the staff and then solemnly lowered to the half-staff position, where it remained only until noon. It was then raised to full-staff for the remainder of the day. The half-staff position was an honorable remembrance  of more than one million men and women who gave their lives in service of their country. At noon, their memory was raised by the living, who resolve not to let their sacrifice be in vain, but to rise up in their stead and continue the fight for liberty and justice for all.

On our next Memorial Day it is my hope that everyone remember the purpose of this holiday and  say a prayer for our fallen heroes who have provided the freedom shared by us all to meet and pray to our God every Sunday.

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