Monday, May 30 is Memorial Day. Originally called Decoration Day, it was first observed in 1868 to honor the sacrifice of those who had fallen on both sides in the Civil War. At the height of its observance, the graves of veterans throughout the nation were decorated each year with a fresh U.S. flag. But it took some time for the states to formally embrace the tradition, and its meaning has never been as deeply rooted in popular culture as other secular holidays like Thanksgiving and July 4th. Today, it seems to be gradually fading away as a day of remembrance for those who lost their lives fighting America’s wars. As one web-site dedicated to the day — usmemorialday.org — puts it,
Traditional observance of Memorial Day has diminished over the years. Many Americans nowadays have forgotten the meaning and traditions of Memorial Day. At many cemeteries, the graves of the fallen are increasingly ignored, neglected. Most people no longer remember the proper flag etiquette for the day. While there are towns and cities that still hold Memorial Day parades, many have not held a parade in decades.
There are many reasons why Memorial Day might be losing its meaning. The last war in which many thousands of American military personnel died ended four decades ago under adverse circumstances (we lost). Just before it ended, the military moved to an all-volunteer recruiting policy that has weakened the emotional bond between many citizens and the military built up during two world wars. And the fabric of society has shifted in ways that diminish observance of many traditional customs.
It can’t be all bad that many Americans don’t remember a time when U.S. warfighters were dying by the hundreds every week for years on end. Moving on and forgetting the past is one reason why America is different from the Balkans. But before Memorial Day becomes just another excuse for shopping instead of working, we ought to remind ourselves that vast numbers of our forebears died to make our lives possible. They didn’t all want to serve and they didn’t all accomplish great things when they did, but they are dead and we are alive, so we owe them something. If we can’t find a moment in our self-absorbed lives to remember the men and women who fought and died in America’s wars, then we probably are well on our way to relearning in harsh fashion the lessons they might have taught us.
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