On Monday, we will mark the 141st anniversary of the first official observation of the holiday we now call Memorial Day, as established by General John A. Logan’s “General Order No. 11” of the Grand Army of the Republic dated May 5, 1868. This order reads in part: “The 30th day of May 1868 is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers and otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land.” Logan’s order in fact ratified a practice that was already widespread, both in the North and the South, in the years immediately following the Civil War.
As Americans continue to fight and die in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is fitting that we recur to the true meaning of this day. Alas, for too many Americans, Memorial Day has come to mean nothing more than another three-day weekend, albeit the one on which the beaches open, signifying the beginning of summer. Unfortunately, the tendency to see the holiday as merely an opportunity to attend a weekend cookout obscures even the vestiges of what the day was meant to observe: a solemn time, serving both as catharsis for those who fought and survived, and to ensure that those who follow will not forget the sacrifice of those who died that the American Republic and the principles that sustain it, might live. Some examples might help us to understand what this really means.