Decoration Day

Posted by on May 27, 2012 in Essay | Comments Off on Decoration Day

When I was a little boy in eastern Kentucky, the day before Decoration Day was the time when my mother would gather my sisters and me into the family car and return to her parents’ home. The next morning, Decoration Day, she would stop by the local florist and buy a few flowers. Then she would drive us to the cemetary where our relatives were buried. Several of them were veterans.

It was usually hot and humid, and the sun would press on us as we looked for the grave sites. 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.

It was strange and solemn ritual, walking among the graves in the bright sunlight. She was quiet as she wended her way to where our relatives lay. Occasionally, she would read the engraved names on the tombstones, wiping her eyes as she spoke with a subdued voice. “Only nineteen“ So young,” she might say. Or “I remember him from school. He was such a sweet boy.” 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 placed several flowers in the small brass urns beside their tombstones, then she told us about who lay in each grave. “This is your cousin George, Uncle Pete‘s son…“  I 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.

When Decoration Day became Memorial Day, fewer graves were decorated, yet more flags were waved and more speeches 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 three-day weekends. The change made it less of a day of remembrance and more a day for sales at department stores and celebrating the coming of summer.

It became a time for politicians to make patriotic speeches that they hope will be remembered by voters at the next election. it is a time for aged veterans to mumble through poetry and prayers for the dead as small children scurry among distracted parents. In towns across the country, flags are waved, bugles play, salutes are fired, and perhaps 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 as constant reminders– for those who wish to be reminded–that wars still continue.

Millions of veterans walk among us from wars and military actions, some of which have been nearly forgotten: Viet Nam, Bosnia, Granada,The Gulf War, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. 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, but because it makes us feel better.

We can yammer about the lies and deceptions that brought about the war in Iraq, and  we can hope that the conflict in Afghanistan ends soon, but are we attending to the grief of the families who have lost sons or daughters? Seldom. Are we attending to the emotional and psychological damage that being in a war zone causes? Unfortunately, as a nation, we are not.

The intention of Memorial Day has been subverted for commercial and political ends. This should not surprise us since almost everything we hold dear as a people has been used for commercial, religious, or political advantage. But we can choose to continue to focus on sales or politics, or we can choose to spend at least a few reflective moments to consider what men and women have sacrificed to keep us safe and self-absorbed.

When asked, our newest veterans (volunteers all) will talk about love of country, sense of duty, or even the honor of serving fellow citizens. As a nation, we can live up to our obligation to take care of them and their families, not in the sense of being charitable but because it is our duty to them. This, above all, is what Memorial Day should be: a reminder to care not only for the graves of the dead, but for the well-being of the living.