I don’t know how it was in your neck of the woods, but I’m delighted to report that in our area, this Memorial Day was truly memorable. There were lots of flags flying on our street; the cemeteries (especially those containing the remains of veterans) were filled with flags and flowers; many of the stores and supermarkets — and even the local baseball game — observed a few moments of silence at 3:00 pm, as our country paused to pay tribute to all those who made the ultimate sacrifice for freedom.
And while I have been very critical of our new president for many of his policies and proposals — and expect to be again — I have to say, I was very pleased by Barack Obama’s actions this past Monday.
His day began with a breakfast in the White House for several "Gold Star" families. These are the relatives of service men and women who were killed in action on behalf of their country.
Later that afternoon, President Obama laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington Cemetery. This annual ceremony dates back 141 years and I’m glad the current occupant of the White House continued to observe it. In his remarks, the President said that the men and women buried at Arlington "waged war so that we may know peace." Then he continued, "They were willing to give up everything for the defense of our freedom [and] were willing to sacrifice all for their country." And he concluded, "They are the best of America."
President Obama also sent wreaths to two other memorials — the Confederate Memorial at Arlington and the African American Civil War Memorial in Washington. A week ago, a group of 60 professors urged the President to break with tradition and not honor veterans who fought for the Confederacy. I’m happy to report that the White House ignored the request.
Other Memorial Day events in our nation’s capitol included a separate Memorial Day observance at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a National Memorial Day Parade in front of the Capitol, and a concert of patriotic music on the west lawn of the Capitol building that evening.
Memorial Day was first celebrated on May 30, 1868, three years after the end of the Civil War. Earlier that month, the Grand Army of the Republic urged that the day be celebrated as follows:
"The 30th day of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land. In this observance no form or ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit."
At the end of World War I, Memorial Day—or Decoration Day, as it was then called—was expanded to commemorate American casualties of any war or military action. For many years, the holiday was celebrated on May 30th, no matter what day of the week that happened to be. But in 1968, Congress in its infinite wisdom decided that we needed more three-day weekends. So it decreed that the event would henceforth be celebrated on the fourth Monday of May.
It’s easy to understand why, for many people, Memorial Day has come to represent the unofficial beginning of summer. It’s a time for picnics and parties and lounging at the beach. But I’m happy to see that the day still means so much more to so many people.