We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
– fromIn Flanders Fields, by Lieut. Col John McCrae
My mother-in-law came out while I was putting up the flag this morning, and cheerily declared, “Happy Memorial Day!”
I winced. She meant well, but “Happy Memorial Day”?
I spent the rest of the morning gardening. The neighbors hauled their little boat out of their driveway, and headed out for a day on a lake somewhere. My grown kids tinkered on various projects. Family came over for lunch. We ate, we talked, we laughed, and swam in the pool and enjoyed each others’ company. It did, in fact, play out as a happy day. And as I look at our flag fluttering in the early evening breeze in our peaceful neighborhood, I realize this is one of the greatest gifts given to us by those we honored today. If there is a way to “celebrate” Memorial Day, beyond flying our flags and decorating graves, and speaking the names of those who have died, then surely it is by being together.
First observed on May 30, 1868, as Decoration Day, Memorial Day originally honored the Civil War dead. As proclaimed by General John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic in General Order No. 11:
The 30th 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 of ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.
After World War I, Memorial Day became an opportunity to honor those killed in all American wars. The Civil War has still claimed the most lives, with over 360,000 war dead. More than 1 million Americans have given their lives in wars since then.
Like many of us, I’ve had great grandparents, and uncles, and in-laws and cousins and friends who have served in wars from the Civil War to Iraq. There are no easy ways to talk about war, no fast answers regarding what wars we should be part of and what wars we shouldn’t. While I enjoy holding up a peace sign when the opportunity presents itself, because I don’t believe we can call for peace often enough, I’m under no illusions as to the difficulties of finding peace in our complicated world.
But I can reflect on and honor those who have died in the service of our country. The facts of their lives and their deaths stand separate from politics and arguments of right or wrong today.
It is for them I fly our flag, and give my thanks for the chance to have a happy day, for them I share this love note.
I only wish more people in the world could have days like the one I’ve enjoyed today, without the cost of war dead.