One hundred and fifty years ago this summer, a procession of widows and orphans solemnly arrived at the fields of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, which a year earlier had witnessed the greatest battle ever to take place on this continent.
They came to plant flags and lay wreaths in cemetery that President Abraham Lincoln had famously dedicated the previous fall. The graves in the cemetery were fresh, and the men resting beneath them were husbands, fathers and sons who had left home to fight for freedom and fallen on the field during three days of unthinkable carnage.
Since the earliest days of civilization, societies have marked the places where the dead are buried, and paid particular respect to the gravesites of fallen soldiers.
The public watches a re-enactment of the Battle of Gettysburg on June 29, 2013 in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Some 8,000 re-enactors from the Blue Gray Alliance are participating in events marking the 150th anniversary of the July 1-3, 1863 Battle of Gettysburg, considered the turning point in favor of the Union in the American Civil War. Union and Confederate armies suffered a combined total of some 46,000-51,0000 casualties in the battle, the highest of any conflict of the war. Getty Images
Homer wrote about the funeral games of Hector and Achilles on the plains of Troy, and early Christians built shrines over the resting places of saints. But the ceremonies at Gettysburg in 1864--which were soon replicated at Civil War sites throughout the country, in both the Union and Confederate states--began a uniquely American tradition, first called “Decoration Day” and now observed as Memorial Day.
On November 11 (the date of the World War I armistice), most of the Western world observes Veterans Day as a salute to all those who have worn their country’s uniform.
But Memorial Day belongs to America--nearly alone among the nations of the world, we take a separate day to specifically honor those veterans who never returned home, who died for a cause that began long before they were born, has continued to this day, and is greater than any of them had the chance to know.
American history is cumulative. The privileges we enjoy today--from the right to vote to freedom of expression to free enterprise to the rule of law--are inseparable from the sacrifices of men and women who lived centuries ago.
Alex Burgess gets emotional while visiting the gravesite of an old friend who was killed in Iraq, in section 60 at Arlington Cemetery, May 27, 2013 in Arlington, Virginia. For Memorial Day President Obama layed a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns, paying tribute to military veterans past and present who have served and sacrificed their lives for their country. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
The soldiers who fell at Gettysburg, Bunker Hill, Iwo Jima, Khe Sanh, and Fallujah, didn’t know it, but they were fighting for our children’s right to grow up in a country where they are free to pursue their dreams. In a way, this makes their sacrifice all the more honorable.
Fighting for a man, a cause, or a homeland takes courage. Fighting for someone you’ll never know takes something more.
[sharequote align="center"]Fighting for someone you’ll never know takes something more.[/sharequote]
Memorial Day is meant to help bring us closer to understanding the unfathomable sacrifices of our fallen, but even though the wounds of our most recent wars are still fresh, the holiday’s Decoration Day roots are fading from memory. No longer merely a salute to the fallen, Memorial Day has become synonymous with the start of summer, and all the excitement that comes with the changing of the seasons. Culturally, Memorial Day has become a lot more about beaches, barbecues and white sales than flags and wreaths.
This isn’t meant to rain on your three-day weekend--but before you gas up the RV, pull the tarp off the pool, fire up the grill, or dust off the patio furniture, think about why we have this holiday at the end of May each year.
It isn’t a celebration of summer or an opportunity to buy a mattress for half-price, but a day that cuts closer to the core of what it means to be American than any other on the calendar.
If you have Monday off, take some time to visit a cemetery--whether you’ve lost a loved one to war or not--and decorate the grave of someone who gave their life so that you could live yours as you know it. The experience just may stay with you longer than the tan you’ll be passing up.
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