Since the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and the launching of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which continue in some fashion even to this day, America’s Memorial Days have become more solemn than had been customary in the immediately preceding years — days devoted to serious reflection, even though mixed with traditional celebrations marking the start of the summer season. This weekend — depending upon which day people choose to observe the event — is a time to remember the men and women who died in the service of the United States. It is a time to bring Americans together to renew their commitment to the nation of liberty these men and women bequeathed to us.
This year, amid a global pandemic, the typical public observances will necessarily be muted. Jaffrey, for example, announced this past week that its annual parade was canceled, though the smaller ceremony at Phillips–Heil Cemetery and the town common will be held. Other communities certainly have also scaled things back. Particularly given the vulnerabilities of those most likely to attend such events, caution is certainly advisable. But public displays, while welcome, aren’t the point of the day in any case.
Memorial Day is not a time to focus on the policies of military conflict — on the decisions that lead to bloodshed and sacrifice. There are plenty of opportunities for such reflections in our self-governing society. Monday is a day to acknowledge the sacrifice of those who answered the call to assure we remain in control of our own destiny.
Memorial Day was first observed on a national level (as Decoration Day) on May 30, 1868, part of the then still acute legacy of the Civil War. It was a gesture proclaimed by General John Logan, commander of the Grand Army of the Republic. He decreed that flowers be placed on the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery.
Over the years, state by state, the observances and the significance of Memorial Day began to spread, first in the North and later in the South, as it evolved into a day to remember Americans who died in all the wars on the country’s lengthening list.
But keeping focused on the holiday’s meaning can be a challenge. We Americans invest some of our holidays with so many ancillary trappings that they risk becoming all but unrecognizable. We move them around to accommodate family outings and religious observances. We schedule events on and around them that have little or no connection to the matter at hand. In part, these adjustments grow out of the fact that we are an exceptionally diverse nation with naturally diverse traditions.
In 1971, Congress moved the Memorial Day observance from May 30 to the last Monday in May, cementing the event as part of a here-comes-summer long weekend, and distancing it from its historical bearings. In a remarkable peculiarity, our once somber Memorial Day weekend now plays host to the boisterous Indianapolis 500 automobile race — though this year the race has been put off until Aug. 23 and may not include spectators.
For many of us, Monday will be observed primarily as a day to remember the men and women who died in the service of the United States. In many families, it will also be an occasion to remember all loved ones who have died.
Quiet, private moments are the essence of this holiday. Contemplation over a veteran’s moss-speckled tombstone worn smooth by the ages. Unspoken thanks to well-remembered friends who lost their lives much more recently. Memories of parents. Tears for sons and daughters who left us before their time.
This year, again, there is another broad consideration to the weekend. President Trump has ordered flags lowered to half staff until Sunday evening in memory of those who’ve died as a result of the pandemic, and there will be many paying tribute to them as well.
These personal reflections require no particular staging. They can flow directly from the heart almost any day of the year at almost any time. This weekend, flag ceremonies, parades, wreath-laying and speeches, to the extent they’re able to be held, will give the occasion its public structure. But, as always, the private moments will make up its substance.