This weekend we commemorate Memorial Day. Like so many venerated remembrances, the origins of Memorial Day are the subject of some debate. Several U.S. cities lay claim to the “first” memorial day observances.
Both Macon and Columbus, Ga., assert their primacy. So does Richmond, Va. The tiny Pennsylvania hamlet of Boalsburg claims it started there. Then there’s the gravestone in Carbondale, Ill., that claims the first “decoration day” was held there.
Students of history know they’re all wrong. As we indicated at this time last year, the oldest observances date back at least 2,400 years to the Athenian leader Pericles and his tribute to the fallen heroes of the Peloponnesian War.
Strictly dealing with American commemorations, in 1966 Congress decreed — so it must be “true” — that Waterloo, N.Y., was the “birthplace” of Memorial Day in the U.S.
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, “(Waterloo held) a ceremony on May 5, 1866, (honoring) local veterans who had fought in the Civil War. Businesses closed and residents flew flags at half-staff.
“Supporters of Waterloo’s claim say earlier observances in other places were either informal, not community-wide or one-time events.”
As society changes, so too do the proprieties of any given sacred observance. Memorial Day is no different. In December 2000, the U.S. Congress passed and the president signed into law “The National Moment of Remembrance Act,” P. L. 106-579, creating the White House Commission on the National Moment of Remembrance.
The commission’s charter reads in part, “(to) encourage the people of the United States to give something back to their country, which provides them so much freedom and opportunity.” The body does so by encouraging and coordinating commemorations in the United States of Memorial Day and the National Moment of Remembrance.
We need this reminder. We need the prompt to solemnity. We need to remember that people have died in our name.
We need all of these things, but we also need to be honest about our culture and society. Memorial Day embodies all of those noble traditions and values. It is also the “traditional” start of summer.
It’s that time of year when the lawn chairs come out, the barbecue gets fired up and kids shake off the bonds of schoolwork. Public festivals begin in earnest. Waterways and campgrounds become crowded. Theater screens burst with action-filled blockbusters.
Here in the South we’re never as cloistered in winter as our northern neighbors. We don’t have to “dig out” as much as we just “dust off” the vestiges of winter. For that reason Memorial Day may not serve as quite the same point of summer demarcation here as it does there. By Memorial Day we’ve been warm for a while. Crops are well under way. The local garden center is in full tilt.
We are attuned to the heat that cometh. In many ways that heat defines us. Readers may know the metaphor “hot as Georgia asphalt.” Not that Arkansas asphalt is likely much cooler, but who would even think of “hot as Vermont asphalt?”
Summer makes us who we are. It helps defines us as a region and a culture. It defines us just as the sacrifices we pause to honor define us as a nation.