By JOSEPH WALKER
VFW Post 7016
Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day. It is a day of commemoration for those who have fallen in action while serving in our nation’s military service. There are many stories that tell of its actual beginnings, with over two dozen cities and towns claiming to be its birthplace. Evidence exists that women’s groups in the South were decorating graves of soldiers killed in battle before the Civil War. A hymn published in 1867, “Kneel Where Our Loves Are Sleeping” by Nell a L. Sweet, carried the dedication “To The Ladies of the South who are Decorating the Graves of the Confederate Dead.” In May 1966, President Lyndon Johnson officially declared Waterloo, N.Y as the birthplace of Memorial Day. However, it is difficult to prove irrefutably the origins of the day. It is more likely that it had many separate beginnings; each of the towns and every planned or spontaneous gathering of people to honor the war dead in the 1860s tapped into the general human desire to honor our military dead, therefore each contributed honorably to the growing movement that culminated in Gen. Logan giving his official proclamation in 1868. “It is not important who was the very first, what is important is that Memorial Day was established. Memorial Day is not about division. It is about reconciliation; it is about coming together to honor those who gave their all.”
Traditional observance of Memorial Day has diminished over the years. For many years Memorial Day was celebrated on May 30 each year. It is now observed on the last Monday of May. Many Americans nowadays have forgotten the meaning and traditions of Memorial Day. At many cemeteries, the graves of the fallen are increasingly ignored and neglected. The majority of people can no longer even remember the proper flag etiquette for the day. I recently overheard someone say that they would be glad when Memorial Day came because that was the day that had been set aside to mark the end of the school year and the beginning of summer vacation. And they actually believed it! Some people think the day is for honoring any and all dead, not just those fallen in service to our country. Also there are many people, even including some veterans who confuse Memorial Day with Veterans Day and vice versa. As a war veteran, I desire no honor or recognition bestowed upon me on this day. My only desire is to honor the memories of my fallen comrades in arms. They are more than just names on a monument.
What may be needed to return the solemn, and yes, even sacred spirit back to Memorial Day is for a return to its traditional day of observance. When Congress made the day into a three-day weekend, it made it easier for people to be distracted from the spirit and meaning of the day. The VFW stated in its 2002 Memorial Day address: “Changing the date merely to create three-day weekends has undermined the very meaning of the day. No doubt, this has contributed greatly to the general public’s nonchalant observance of Memorial Day.”
The late Joseph Walker, VFW Post 7016, Atmore, was the news editor for the Post. This article is included in the Post’s program for the Memorial Day service Monday, May 29.