While Memorial Day has its origin as honoring war veterans, many citizens choose the day to remember their deceased loved ones as well. The birthplace of Memorial Day is Waterloo, NY. There on May 5, 1866 local veterans remembered those who served and lost their lives in the Civil War. Shops were closed, flags were flown at half-mast and flowers were placed on the graves of the deceased veterans.
From that time, and especially in 1888 when a major observance was held at Arlington National Cemetery, until the end of the 19th century, Memorial Day ceremonies were held on May 30 throughout the nation. State legislatures passed proclamations designating the day, and the Army and Navy adopted regulations for proper observance at their facilities.
It was not until after World War I, however, that the day was expanded to honor those who have died in all American wars. In 1971, Memorial Day was declared a national holiday by an act of Congress, though it is still often called Decoration Day. It was then also placed on the last Monday in May.
As a child, one early memory of this important day of remembrance was ge@ing into our old Chevy wagon and going over into Forest Hills, Hyde Park and those neighborhoods where there are several cemeteries. On the way we would stop and purchase flowers, baskets, ivy and the like. The whole experience was unusual for me as family members explained that a deceased grandparent or other relative was buried here and on this day we place flowers at the graveside to honor and remember. I had never met any of these deceased and so the occasion offered family a chance to tell me something of their story. Looking back over the years, I can see that the simple experience of going to the cemetery and remembering brought into the present the reality of that person’s life and often a recollection of the blessings that one brought to our family.
There are so many Americans who have served in the military. And for we who have, this day has a special meaning. We recall those with whom we have served and/or those in the same branches of the service who served in the same places, bases, ships, planes … who lost their lives in service.
And on this day, everyone is caught up, once again, in the tragedy of war. How many great leaders of nations, religions and armies have made impassioned pleas to end war and not to go to war? And yet our human condition is such that at times we are unable to resolve the intractable issues of world conflicts without going to war.
This Memorial Day, as is at times the case, falls in the Easter Season. The centrality of the empty tomb and belief in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead frees us to see the grave as not the end of the story of a life. And so we remember how fragile is this sweet experience called life. And we ask our merciful God to receive our beloved dead to a place of eternal peace and to bless us, the living, with courage to create an ever more just world. For the words of Pope Paul VI in the late 60’s remain prophetic and wise, “If you want peace, work for justice”.