As with so much in our national life, change has come to Memorial Day. Flags continue to fly, patriotic garlands hang from porch railings, and bunting flutters in late-May breezes. Nevertheless, in ways both subtle and obnoxious, Memorial Day has become primarily a beginning-of-summer ritual: a time to focus on beaches, barbeques, mattress sales, and the first road trip of the season.
In truth, the slowly-fading history and significance of Memorial Day is both more complex and more interesting than most Americans realize.
With the ending of the Civil War, commemorations spread across the South as mothers, wives, and children of the Confederate dead decorated the graves of their fallen soldiers.
Thirty years later, American writer and illustrator Howard Pyle wrote about Decoration Day for the May 28, 1898 issue of Harper’s Bazaar:
At that time, the outward signs of that flaming and bitter strife were still fresh and new. The bosom of nature, ploughed by the iron of war, had not yet healed. Everywhere were smoke-blackened and shattered shells, each at one time the patriarchal mansion of some great slave-holding planter.
Woods and glades were thinned out by the storm of shot and shell that had torn through them with iron hail. In one place or another long rows – rank upon rank – of shallow mounds stretched up hills, along the level, through the woodlands: battalions of graves hardly yet covered with the thin young grass.
Upon a dozen battle-fields were great cemeteries, each consecrated with its baptism of blood, and there North and South lay in stillness, soldiers stretched side by side, in a fraternity never to be broken, because the AngelIsrafel himself had set his seal of silence upon it all.
“In Memoriam” ~ Sophie Bertha Steel
It was to these battle cemeteries, greater or lesser, that the women of the neighboring country brought their offering of flowers.
There is something very full of pathos in the thought of those poor Southern women who had suffered so much and who had endured to such a bitter end – of those patient women of grief bringing their harmless offerings of flowers to these stern and furrowed fields of death, there to lay the fading things upon the bosom of each mound.
The North, it is said, was remembered at those times as well as the South. One cannot but hope this may be true, for it is beautiful to think of one woman of sorrows in the South reaching out an unseen hand to some other and unknown woman of sorrows in the faraway North.
On May 5, 1868, General John A. Logan, Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, issued orders that on May 30th of that year all posts should decorate the graves of the Civil War dead with flowers – both North and South – thus formalizing what had become customary.
After World War I, the focus of the day was expanded to honor all those who had died in all American wars, and Memorial Day began to replace Decoration Day as a term of reference. In 1971, Memorial Day was declared a national holiday by an act of Congress and placed on the last Monday in May.
By the years of my midwestern childhood, the rituals of Decoration Day had become firmly established. On the weekend preceding the holiday, we traveled to family cemeteries to clear away grass from the stones, trim the bushes, and plant fresh flowers. The town’s Boy Scouts, 4-H members, and church youth groups helped the Veterans of Foreign Wars place flags on veterans’ graves, so that all who served would be remembered.
Classroom lessons included the history of significant battles, and Presidential speeches. We created red, white and blue pennants containing patriotic images – the Tree of Liberty, the Liberty Bell, or Lady Liberty’s torch – and posters containing words we barely apprehended: Freedom. Peace. Courage.
Always, there was time for personal memories. World War II lay only a decade in the past, so tokens of that time were common: rationing coupons for gas and sugar; ribbons and medals awarded for bravery; photographs and correspondence from the front.
Once year, I shared a letter from my Uncle Jack, who fought in the Pacific but lay buried in Manila. His letters somehow disappeared into the great maw of time, but I have my father’s words to his brother:
We got your letter today and were sure glad to hear from you and that you are OK. It must be something over there. We kind of figured you must be up in the front, as we had not heard of you for some time…
Saw in the paper that the kid I used to ask you about was wounded over in Leyte. From that I figured you must be in there, too, as he is in the same division as you. Things must be bad there in more ways than one. From the papers it sounds like you are doing OK, though. Sure hope so…
Had you heard that Don was wounded? He was hit by a piece of flak. I guess his flying days are over from what he says. Sure hope you get through this campaign without injury. It sure must be nerve-wracking to fight all day and stand guard all night…
Take care of yourself and be careful. Hope this thing is over and you get home pretty soon. Write when you can…
Once school was dismissed on Friday, the routine never varied. Saturday morning meant a parade. In the afternoon, we cooked for Sunday’s trip to my grandparents’ home and then, at Sunday worship, we listened as a deacon read the list of congregational members killed or missing in action. We sang hymns acknowledging the realities of worldly conflict, and listened to sermons meant to comfort those still grieving their loss.
On Memorial Day itself we returned to the cemetery for flag ceremonies and speeches: a different sort of comfort.
On May 30, 1896, Father John J. Woods, pastor of Brooklyn’s Holy Cross Church, delivered some typical remarks. After members of the Veterans and Sons of Veterans’ Mutual Benefit Union marched with a fife and drum corps past decorated houses and cheering crowds to Holy Cross Cemetery, they heard these words, later reported in The Brooklyn Eagle.
“Where in the history of the world can be found any preamble or constitution as that of America? Its enunciation carried hope and consolation to the downtrodden and afflicted of every country, its promulgation and realization by a handful of valiant patriots sent consternation to cruel tyrants and earthly potentates, and proved that more than a human hand guided the destinies of the young republic.
The corner stone of this republic was laid in the noblest blood that ever flowed in battle, for it was shed for principle and God-given rights that no tyrant or power can stifle, much less destroy.
Our forefathers grabbed the sword and musket not to extend their territory or possessions, not to further ambitious objects, but to protect their heavenly gift of liberty. ‘Who will dare,’ cried they to the world, ‘deprive us of our right to seek happiness? Who will dare fetter us by unlawful and excessive taxation? Who will deny us the right to worship our Creator according to the dictates of our consciences? None, unless at the loss of our fortunes, our lives and sacred honor.”
Always, Decoration Day closed with a concert in the park. Battle-scarred or whole, old or young, bereaved by conflict or blessedly untouched, we gathered to hear the familiar songs.
After singing along with Cohen’s “You’re a Grand Old Flag” and clapping and toe-tapping our way through Sousa marches, our program invariably concluded with “The Battle Hymn of Republic.” Sometimes there were tears, and Peter Wilhousky’s arrangment still touches me: recalling as it does a time, not so long ago and perhaps still recoverable, when people of every political stripe, of wildly varying economic status, of every faith or of no faith at all, were willing to set aside differences in order to stand together in reverence before the majesty and mystery of a nation “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
As we come to our own Memorial Day celebrations, honoring those whose graves we decorate and cherishing the memory of their service on our behalf, perhaps we would do well to remember that lives, too, can be decorated: draped with the selflessness, integrity, honesty, and valor that constitute the best garlands of citizenship.
If we choose to live by such values, we may yet ensure that our dead have not died in vain; that our nation shall have a new birth of freedom; and that, in the words of Lincoln, “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Battle Hymn of the Republic, arr. Wilhousky
Comments always are welcome. Illustrations come from a collection of family postcards. The post, updated from one previously published, still is relevant.
I recently felt slightly lost and demotivated to continue writing my online diary here on my blog website. Its a normal cycle, sometimes we are at the bottom of the wheel, sometimes we are at the top. Thankfully, it was only temporary and now Im back writing, transforming all my internal thoughts into words, so that the unseen will be realized. Nonetheless, I’m still travelling as usual, living constantly on the road in search of different experience. But I will now share my writings since months ago that were left unpublished. I will now start since where I left, which was my last hike in Nepal, the Annapurna Basecamp trek…
After I completed the hike in the Annapurna Basecamp trek, I took a few days break and figuring out my next move. Winter was slowly approaching, when the sun left the Himalayas, the coldness came side by side with the darkness of the night. So I decided to spend only a few more weeks in Nepal before finally leaving the Himalayas. Thanks to the social media, I got to know Jody Lee, a kind hearted woman who is behind “The Help Nepal Appeal”, a non profit organization that helps the earthquake survivors in Nepal. I have never get myself involved in any charity work in my entire life. So joining this team for a few days in Nepal is something really new and fresh experience for me.
After our meeting in Kathmandu, Jody, two local Nepalis and me went to a small village of Sisaghat, somewhere between Kathmandu and Pokhara to visit a school there, where they were concentrating on two projects at that time, which were the student leadership council and to raise the level of education for the special need students in the school. I came in more like an observer, where my job is to film the experience and produce a video to be shared on their youtube channel, so that they will have more exposure on things that they do in Nepal. So instead of helping by teaching and entertaining the special need children which I have no experience at all, I was just helping by operating my cameras.
a very colourful and interesting Nepali wedding in Sisaghat
Staying in the village for a few days observing and filming the locals and the activities, I was mostly amazed by the meaning of kindness. For many years I’ve been wondering, if god is the most fair, why some people are born rich, while some children died because of hunger… why some people are living good life while others are struggling throughout their entire life… why wars and natural disasters happen and people have to suffer. Looking at the world from our human level logic, it seems that all these don’t make sense and will make us think that god isnt fair at all. But when I try to look at things from a different angle, some things started to make more sense. This realm we are living is relative based. We define each attributes by its opposite. Beauty will not exist without ugliness. We never will realize the light if there is no darkness. Good and bad define each other. Success will not exist without failure. Positive and negative neutralize each other. Without being at the bottom, we will never climb. Without making mistakes, we will never say sorry or ask for forgiveness. There is a saying, we usually will appreciate something only after we lose it, this is because only then we experience its opposite, thus we realize its importance…
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local in Sisaghat
landscape in Tanahun district
So it is the same thing in this case, an earthquake struck Nepal a few years ago which caused many casualties and many others lost their homes. But not long after that, goodness comes out of nowhere, local and international volunteers came to Nepal to offer their help and suddenly, there is a very strong connection between the victims and the helping hands. More people come to Nepal and the country became more exposed to tourism. Here in Sisaghat village, I witness the perfect example of my thought. Jody Lee, the Australian woman who is the founder of Help Nepal Appeal, is now dedicating her life to help the earthquake victims in Nepal. After the news of the earthquake reached her ears, she quickly raised thousands of dollars in Australia and flew to Nepal to help whatever she can. She even work hard and use all her own savings to help the victims. Now one of the project for the organization is to help upgrading the teaching quality of the special need children in this village and also introducing student leadership council program to the school here. If this works out, they plan to implement it to all the school in Nepal.
students imagining themselves becoming a leader. hehe…
students imagining themselves transforming into a flower
Jody Lee, the person behind Help Nepal Appeal
Pramod, a local volunteer teaching and entertaining the special need students
Eric Lee, a volunteer from the US teaching the school children for a few days
When I first came to this village together with them, my intention is more towards seeing the local people here since I know nothing and inexperience about charity works. But when observing how they work together especially with the special need children, I find it very interesting and film all the experience. It is such a waste if a tree blossoming with thousands of colourful flowers but no one is there to appreciate its beauty. It is such a waste if a tree bear delicious fruits but no one is there to taste them. It is such a waste if a painter create a masterpiece but no one is there to acknowledge the master work. So here I shared the short film I made for them, so that their kindness will be acknowledged, appreciated and hopefully will motivate others to do good things instead of being wasted and forgotten. You can find out more about them on their website and social media.