Today we commemorate Memorial Day, a custom in this country resulting from our Civil War where we honored the dead soldiers of the North and the South. Originally, it was called Decoration Day, an expression older people would occasionally use as I remember from my youth. The intent was to honor the soldiers by decorating their graves with small flags, flowers or some other tribute. Actually, the custom of honoring deceased soldiers is an old one, going back to the Romans.
Today, Memorial Day is celebrated more as the start of summer vacation and the Indianapolis 500 as opposed to remembering the millions of soldiers who gave their lives in the service of their country, which is rather disappointing. Fortunately, there are still people who commemorate the day with a small-town parade or observe a military service at a nearby cemetery.
Two of the most impressive services are at the Tomb of the Unknowns at the Arlington National Cemetery and Gettysburg National Cemetery in Pennsylvania, where President Lincoln delivered his famous address, “Four score and seven years ago ...” It’s the last paragraph of Lincoln’s address that defines the meaning of Memorial Day:
“But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
One custom commonly overlooked on Memorial Day is the display of the American flag. The proper etiquette is to raise it briskly to the top of the staff and then solemnly lower it to the half-staff position, where it remains until noon. It is then raised to full-staff for the rest of the day. Those of us with modest-sized flags at home should simply display them proudly.
Let us never forget that Memorial Day is not about barbecues, auto racing, and the end of the school year or the beginning of summer. It’s about honoring our fallen heroes.