Memorial Day in the United States is a day set aside grieve and remember the lives of the service people who died during and because of conflict and wars.
The United States is not unique in this type of day of remembrance. All communities, all over the globe remember those who place themselves in protection of their families, their tribes, states, and nations. There is documentation from the Ancient Greek and Romans who remembered specifically with flowers and decorating tombs and grave sites as we do today.
The United States tradition of national grieving came into being because of and during the Civil War. There are several accounts of how our tradition started and there are several cities that lay claim to being the first to create such a day. Following are a few.
November 19, 1863 Abraham Lincoln spoke at the dedication of the Gettysburg Cemetery and Memorial. “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. … It is for the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which the who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced”.
1865 in Pruntytown, West Virginia Ann Reeves Jarvis orchestrated a day of grave decorating for both Union and Confederate Soldiers and invited all ex-soldiers, families, and neighbors of all political beliefs to come to the town courthouse for picnics and games. This annual event lasted for many years.
1866 in Columbus, Georgia the women in the town decorated the graves of the soldiers: both Confederate and Union calling for reconciliation and peace.
1868 was the first Nationally recognized Decoration Day in which parades, gatherings, and grave decorating was organized in many cities and towns across 27 states.
Decoration Day slowly started to be referred to as Memorial Day and after World War One the ceremonies included remembering all service people who died because of conflict and war.
In 1924 Congress Codified a tradition in which the United States flag flies at half-staff until noon on Memorial Day and then is raised to full staff until sunset. This U.S. Code Title 4, Section 6 was made official with the proclamation, “For the nation lives, and the flag is a symbol of illumination. Clark Rogers of the National Flag Foundation told Live Science in an article published in 2017, “The first part of the day honors those who sacrificed, and the second part of the day honors those who are still with us.”
From 1775-2019, 1,354,664 United States service people have died in 79 named wars and conflicts. Those that are still with us include service people as well as those who support those service people, their families, ancestors, neighbors, and fellow citizens.
It is said that any life, or death that we are aware touches our own lives in some fashion. We are aware of 1,354,664 lives and their families and loved ones. On this day of national grief and remembrance we also remember that the answer to such suffering, any suffering is transformation. How we move forward as a people, as a nation says a lot on how we honor the realities of a country deprived of over a million souls' potential because of human conflict and war.
Remember the origins of the day. Originators brought together all peoples, created a space to get to know one another as individuals, offered opportunities for sincere conversation and perspective sharing, shared not only flowers and condolences, but also being “dedicated here to the unfinished work” of living in harmony with one another. In this way we move humanity past the point where we feel it necessary to subject each other to the violence that adds more numbers to be remembered. We are the ones that walk each other home. Those that died did so in the pursuit of creating a pathway clear for the rest of us to walk. It is up to us to honor that sacrifice by doing all we can to keep it clear as we walk it with each other.
Rev. Jenn Shepherd