No fewer than 25 cities claim to be the birthplace of today’s Memorial Day holiday, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
The South has its origin stories, including a group of women in Columbus, Mississippi, visiting a cemetery to decorate the graves of fallen Confederate soldiers 154 years ago today. The bloody battles of the Civil War were just 13 months in the past, but the women, noting the neglected, bare graves of enemy Union soldiers, decided to place flowers on those as well.
The North, likewise, claims an organization of Union veterans, the Grand Army of the Republic, which, on May 5, 1868, three years after the Civil War, established “Decoration Day” to urge placing flowers on the graves of war dead. It chose May 30 for the annual decorating since flowers are in bloom across much of the nation by then.
In 1966, Congress and President Lyndon Johnson settled the origin argument by declaring Waterloo, N.Y., the official “birthplace” of Memorial Day. Congress declared Memorial Day a national holiday in 1971, and decided it should be observed, always, on the last Monday in May.
No matter where today’s holiday came from, we can all agree with its lasting significance, how it’s "a solemn day of mourning (and) a sacred day of remembrance to honor those who paid the ultimate price for our freedoms," as the nonprofit usmemorialday.org aptly states.
More eloquently perhaps, “Veterans are a symbol of what makes our nation great, and we must never forget all they have done to ensure our freedom,” as former U.S. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey once stated.
The day is for remembering our heroes. And, “I think of a hero as someone who understands the degree of responsibility that comes with his freedom," Duluth native and singer/songwriter Bob Dylan said.
But Memorial Day has lost its way over the years and decades, hasn’t it? More about mattress sales and marking the start of summer now than honoring and remembering.
"Too many people celebrate the day without more than a casual thought to (its) purpose and meaning," the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War writes at its website. "How do we honor the 1.8 million that gave their life for America since 1775? How do we thank them for their sacrifice?
"We need to put the memorial back in Memorial Day and observe the day as it was originally intended."
This year seems an ideal chance to do just that. By limiting gatherings and travel, the COVID-19 pandemic is also creating more time and opportunity for quiet reflection and deeper research into those who served and fell for our freedoms.
“The many restrictions due to COVID-19 have stripped the ‘happy’ from our Memorial Day, perhaps reminding us that without neighborhood barbecues and retail bonanzas, the day is really about what the small town of Waterloo began,” Army spouse Frances Tilney Burke of the American Enterprise Institute wrote in a column published in Sunday’s News Tribune. “The silver lining of our quarantines, our solitude, and our adherence to stay-at-home orders is that (Memorial day 2020) may be full of thoughtful memories, solemn tributes and quiet commemorations — an acknowledgement of sacrifice rather than a frenzied dash to the local big-box stores. This year, shed of celebration, the shadow of COVID-19 gives us the opportunity to remember (as President Abraham Lincoln did in the Gettysburg Address) ‘those who here gave their lives that (our) nation might live.’”
We owe it to those who fell in battle, and to our nation, to commemorate today, not to celebrate. We can find at least a moment, especially this year, to pay tribute — just as all Americans were able to do in the wake of the Civil War.