Today is Memorial Day. It was proclaimed so only in 1971, by an act of Congress, to be celebrated on the last Monday in May, but the tradition of decorating gravesites and paying tribute to those who died in battle, or as a result of injuries sustained in service, goes back a lot further in time. Some say it was always a Southern tradition. It is true that May 30 was celebrated as Decoration Day, beginning in 1866, following a declaration by U.S. Gen. John A. Logan, who took his inspiration from the practice of cleaning and decorating relatives’ graves each spring, especially the gravesites of Confederate dead.
I was privileged last Friday to be one of a small group who volunteered to place flags in a single section of the Little Rock National Cemetery for Memorial Day. In a little more than two hours, our group of nine decorated more than 1,800 headstones with the small, simple reminders that a nation still honors those who died in wars fought to defend the freedoms we now enjoy.
The day was first celebrated nationally in the United States in 1868, during a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., where both Union and Confederate dead are buried. As the years passed, it came to be known as Memorial Day, and after World War I, the same date was celebrated across the United Kingdom, and elsewhere in the world as Poppy Day or Remembrance Day. The tradition continues, but in many places, the date has come to be celebrated not as a tribute to those who gave their lives in service to the country, but as a party weekend that signals the beginning of summer.
Perhaps there is room for both.
I choose, each Memorial Day, to take at least a few moments to pay tribute to those who died so that my family and I can live in peace and enjoy the coming summer’s activities. As the proud daughter of a retired military officer, the wife of another former Army officer, and the descendant of many men who served honorably in war and peace in our country’s past, I cannot forget the sacrifices of those who served, both at home and in foreign lands and did not return to enjoy the privileges that they won in battle.
I have written before about my visits to battlefields, and my feelings. I could not help but recall, as I planted small flags aside the headstones of men and women I did not know, those other visits and those other feelings. When the work was done, I took a few moments to walk alone among other markers at the Little Rock Cemetery. Sadly, there were not enough volunteers this year to place flags at all the headstones — many of them date to the Civil War. Separate burial grounds of Confederate and Union soldiers have been incorporated into the grounds of the National Cemetery.
The markers and their inscriptions are telling. Spanish American War, World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Gulf War. History is alive in this somber place. Veterans from all services who have markers here served in all the battles this country has been engaged in — from that war between the states to foreign battles in which we had no stake. Most of them did not die in battle; they died as old men, but they served, and that service changed them. I am sure that, until the end of their days, they took pride in their service, knowing that what they did allows the rest of us to live our lives in relative peace and prosperity until the end of our days.