Memorial Day has always had a problem.
Originally called Decoration Day, it started after the Civil War as a day set aside for Americans to place floral tributes on the graves of soldiers who had died serving their country. May was chosen because it was the month when many flowers were in bloom.
Decoration Day was always observed on May 30, which often fell on a weekday. Many had to take time out of their work schedules to visit a cemetery and pay tribute to America’s heroes.
But in 1968, with the name officially changed to Memorial Day, it was moved to the last Monday in May. It became one of five national holidays that, for the sake of convenience, was tacked onto a weekend.
Had Memorial Day been set in another, cooler month or had it not created a three-day weekend, its purpose might be better remembered. But it occurs just as Americans are ready to start celebrating summer. It is the return of the “outdoor season” and is strongly associated with picnics and barbecues. For the young, its meaning can get lost in the euphoria of the end of school.
The concern that the true purpose of Memorial Day has been lost is not a new one. Americans have been complaining for over a century that the day barely honors the fallen.
In 1872, Eliza Connor, a regular contributor to the Post who wrote under the pseudonym “Zig,” observed that Americans were using Decoration Day like a second Fourth of July. Though the Civil War was just a few years in the past, the purpose of the day was already being obscured by parades, brass bands, fireworks, and, worst of all, politics.
June 29, 1872
Decoration Day, May 30, … ought to be a day sacred to all the holy, gentle feelings of mortal nature, sacred to sweet memories and sweeter hopes. A day when strife, malice, envy, and all evil are banished utterly from our hearts, when, for one day, good should fill men’s breasts wholly. I think that is what those who are gone would wish.
But I fear there isn’t very much reverence for the sacred, gentle emotions in us Americans. There isn’t in us very much reverence for anything, I think, or else we should never turn a day set apart for visiting the graves of our dead friends into a Fourth of July. There is that which is absolutely shocking about the way Decoration Day is coming to be observed. I don’t know how it is elsewhere, but here among us such an infernal hullabaloo was kept up all day that you couldn’t hear your own ears. [Zig wrote from Indianapolis, Indiana.]
At break of day the demonish din began. With the very first peep of light, aye, before it, we were affrighted from our slumbers by a thundering shot-gun cannonade right under our very windows. We bolted out of bed as if we ourselves had been shot, wondering in our scared bewilderment, if a New York mob wasn’t coming, or indeed whether Old Nick himself wasn’t after us.
The shot-gun cannonading increased as the morning wore on, every minute being nearer, clearer, deadlier than before. What on earth could it mean? And it was not for two full hours that I remembered, with a blush for my fellow countrymen, that it was the thirtieth of May — a day sacred to the memory of the blessed dead. Later on in the day, they had processions of policemen, secret societies, and brass bands of music, and processions of citizens in carriages, and ladies and citizens on foot, and the Mayor and Council, and wagon loads of young ones, and that sort of thing, for all the world like a Fourth of July. I don’t particularly remember to have heard any popping of torpedoes or explosions of shooting crackers, but I haven’t a doubt that next year they will go off lively, and I dare say fireworks will be added in the evening, and they will have special Decoration Day plays at the theatre, with dead soldiers in the show. It will be very nice, and just like the progressive spirit of Young America.
But the most sacrilegious feature, the most abominably disgusting feature about Decoration Day is that the office-seekers have turned it into a day for electioneering and the firing-off of their accursed political popgunnery. Some despicable ward politician —and there never was a ward politician who wasn’t despicable — invariably gets hoist of the occasion, and spouts his small buncombe at folks till they are sick. It is simply outrageous. The man who played cards on his grandmother’s coffin was guilty of no greater desecration.
I wonder how the dead soldiers like it.
Every year thousands and thousands of dollars are spent on Decoration Day. It is a day for pomp and vanity and show. Foolish people vie with each other in the number and variety of costly flowers which they purchase, much the same as horse-fanciers seek to out-do each other in the matter of fast trotters.
There has been money enough spent in this foolish rivalry to feed, clothe, and educate every destitute soldier’s orphan in the land. And if departed souls ever can behold the scenes of this life again, I know that many and many a brave man who laid down his life for his country, looks sorrowfully upon the roses which garland his grave on Decoration Day. Because his fellow countrymen and women cover his senseless clay with flowers, and leave the children whom he loved to become outcasts and street Arabs. It is really pitiful to remember how much some of the soldier’s children have lost. And if the money which is thrown away every year on useless pomp and show, were spent to educate the orphan children, to train them to noble, virtuous lives, then our beloved soldiers’ graves would be decked with immortal flowers, and Decoration Day would be crowned with garlands which would grow greener with each succeeding year. Again, I think that is what those who are gone would wish.
On this Memorial Day, some Americans will forget to honor the men and women who died in the country’s service. Others will remember but be unable to decorate a military grave. They can still honor the fallen by keeping a sense of gratitude for what the price our soldiers paid to protect our priceless legacy: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Featured image: Decoration Day, 1917. (Library of Congress)