Nobody is exactly sure when and where the Memorial Day tradition was started.
The historical record indicates that President Lyndon Baines Johnson officially declared Waterloo, New York, as the birthplace of Memorial Day by presidential proclamation in 1966. But at least one online source — usmemorialday.org — indicates there are more than two dozen other communities that also claim to be the place where the first American Memorial Day was observed, from Columbus, Georgia, to Columbus, Mississippi, to 22 or so places not named Columbus.
Regardless of where the actual birthplace of Memorial Day was, it’s pretty clear that the practice started during the years following the Civil War as a way of remembering and honoring those who gave their lives during that conflict. In many places, women decorated the graves of their dead soldiers with flowers in much the same way that early Egyptians, Greeks and Romans used flowers and flower petals as part of their funeral rites and rituals — which is why it has often been referred to as Decoration Day through the years.
Eventually it became a national holiday called Memorial Day, and its scope was expanded to include paying tribute to fallen soldiers from every American war. Over time, it has evolved into a day to honor the memory of all our departed loved ones, regardless of their military background — or lack thereof.
And that isn’t a bad thing, necessarily. Remembering beloved family members and friends is actually a good thing, and it ought to be done. This Memorial Day, for example, I’ll be putting flowers on the graves of my parents, grandparents, my eldest brother, my wife’s grandparents and two nieces. And I’ll feel really good about doing so even though none of these dear souls met a soldier’s death.
But as I make the rounds through four different cemeteries with my wife and as many of our children and grandchildren as can come, I’ll be thinking about my son-in-law, Brock, who would be joining us were it not for his current military assignment in Afghanistan.
This is Brock’s fourth tour of duty on foreign, war-torn soil — the other three were in Iraq — and so we’re kind of used to him not always being with us. But we never get used to knowing that he lives each day in harm’s way, in a place where guns are being fired and bombs are going off. That harsh, everyday reality has a way of sharpening your focus and making you remember things you might otherwise forget — especially when it comes to Memorial Day.
That’s why we’re going to do something this year that we’ve never done before. On Monday, May 26, at precisely 3 p.m., we’re going to stop doing whatever we’re doing, wherever we are, to participate in the National Moment of Remembrance. I confess that I had never heard of this annual observance, but it’s been happening every year since 2000, when President Bill Clinton initiated it as a way to “pause and consider the true meaning of this holiday honoring those Americans who died while defending our Nation and its values.”
It was President Clinton’s intent that each Memorial Day at 3 p.m. (local time), Americans would “pause for one minute to remember and reflect on the sacrifices made by so many to provide freedom to all.” Major League Baseball games come to a brief stop. Amtrak train whistles sound wherever they are. Tourists at the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty and elsewhere are asked to pause for a moment of silent reflection.
Which is exactly what the Walker family will be doing this Memorial Day at 3 p.m. We’ll be reflecting, considering, remembering and praying. For Brock. For those who serve with him. For those who have paid the ultimate price for our freedom. And for us.
Because sometimes we forget to remember.
To read more by Joseph B. Walker, visit josephbwalker.com. Twitter: JoeWalkerSr