While driving through downtown Marquette, Michigan on Friday, my daughter startled me with the question: "Dad, why are there so many flags?" I had to think for a moment, then I remembered Memorial Day was fast-approaching, only three days away. To better answer my daughter's question, and because I had to give the opening remarks in church this weekend, I did a bit of research into the roots of this holiday that's come to mark the beginning of summer in the United States.
To understand Memorial Day, you have to understand a bit about our Civil War. In 1861 we began the bloodiest, most miserable war ever fought on our home turf. By the time the war ended in 1865, over 600,000 lives had been lost. Few escaped the effects of the war. Almost everyone knew, or was related to, someone who had given their life in service to their country. War-dead from both sides of the conflict were buried in cemeteries all across the northern and southern states.
Decoration Day, as the holiday was originally known, seems to have sprung up rather spontaneously, as friends and relatives took to placing flowers on the graves of their fallen loved-ones in the years immediately following the Civil War. In 1868, General James A. Logan, a leader in an organization of former sailors and soldiers known as the Grand Army of the Republic, issued a proclamation designating May 30 for the purpose of decorating the graves of comrades who "died in the defense of their country during the late rebellion." This was the birth of what we know call Memorial Day.
The holiday caught on, and by the late 1800s was widely observed in communities across the country. In 1882 the name was changed to Memorial Day. Following World War I, the scope of the day was broadened to encompass not just Civil War dead, but all those who had fallen in any of the United States' wars (2). In 1971 Congress declared Memorial Day a national holiday, and the observance was set for the last Monday in May.
Memorial Day is a serious holiday. It's sobering to reflect on the number of my fellow citizens who gave their their lives to protect me, my family, my parents and grandparents, indeed to protect all of us who enjoy life today in the United States (and other countries as well). As you go about your holiday activities, I implore you to pause and give thought (and give thanks!) to those whose sacrifices make our enjoyment of the day even possible. We are blessed by their sacrifice.