When I was a little boy in eastern Kentucky, Decoration Day was the time when my mother would gather my sisters and me into the family car and drive us to the cemetery where several of our relatives were buried, veterans all. It was usually hot and humid, and the sun would press on us as we looked for the gravesites. My mother could never remember exactly where the graves were located, so we would park in the general vicinity of the graves and wander until we found them.
In my early years, it seemed a strange and solemn ritual, walking among the graves in the bright sunlight, my mother carrying flowers purchased at the florist whose shop was near the cemetery. Mom would be oddly quiet as she looked at the engraved names on the tombstones as she wended her way to where our relatives lay. She would occasionally wipe her eyes as she would bend to read the inscriptions, and her voice was subdued as she read. “Only nineteen. So young,” she might say. It was on these visits that I first read the words “Korea,” “Argonne,” “Battle of the Bulge,” and “Iwo Jima.”
When we would finally locate our relatives, Mom would place several flowers in the small brass urns beside the tombstone, then she would tell us about who lay there. “This is your cousin George, Uncle Pete’s son...” She said little, but we learned that wars were awful things, full of grief and loss for the families who remembered those whose lives were so quickly ended. No matter how righteous the cause, the results were the same for the dead and those who loved them.
As I grew up, the name was changed from Decoration Day to Memorial Day. Fewer graves were decorated; more flags were waved and speeches were made about courage, sacrifice, and just causes. In 1971, the date was moved from being celebrated on a fixed date (May 30) to the last Monday in May in order to align it with federal 3-day weekends.
It has become less of a day of remembering and more a day of celebrating the coming of summer; a day for sales at department stores. And in towns that hold parades, it has become a time for politicians to make patriotic speeches that they hope will be remembered by voters at the next election, and for aged veterans to mumble through poetry and prayers for the dead and comfort for the living as small children scurry about watched over by distracted parents. Flags are waved, bugles play, salutes are fired, tears are shed; then life returns to normal.
Yet, in the silent cemeteries, the breezes rustle the few small flags and the wilting flowers. The dead remain, constant reminders, for those who wish to be reminded, that wars still continue. Hundreds of thousands of veterans still walk among us from wars and military actions, some of which have been nearly forgotten: Viet Nam, Bosnia, Granada, Afghanistan, The Gulf War, Somalia, and now Iraq.
Were these wars just? Were they necessary? To the dead, it matters not. The living can eulogize their sacrifice, their courage, their devotion, not because it gives the dead comfort–for they are beyond needing to be comforted, but because it makes us feel better. We can yammer about the lies and deceptions that brought about the war in Iraq, and hope that the conflict ends soon, but are we attending to the grief of the families who have lost sons or daughters? Are we attending to the emotional and psychological damage that being in a war zone causes? Or are we mostly concerned about being right?
The times have changed, and the intention of the day has been subverted for commercial and political ends. But the meaning of the day is the meaning that we choose for it. What meaning will you choose? Selah.