Originally known as Decoration Day, the event now called Memorial Day in the US first honored those who died in the American Civil War. It is widely believed to have sprung from the Appalachian tradition of cleaning family gravesites and decorating them with flowers, emblems, and memorabilia on a day set aside when the weather warms up in Spring. These events grew to include gatherings at the cemetery where families would sing, pray, and sometimes even serve a home-cooked picnic dinner among the graves. According to the US Veteran’s Administration, it was not until after World War I that celebrations on Memorial Day were expanded to honor those who have died in all American wars. Congress declared the day a national holiday in 1971. It was then also placed on the last Monday in May, as were some other federal holidays.
This Memorial Day may be quieter than in former years. Solitude and reflection on the weighty cost of war are always appropriate. Perhaps we will want to have a quiet picnic with a book, read aloud in the soft space of time spent with a loved one or ancestor who has gone beyond: Communion of the highest order, we think.
There is a deeply meaningful memory set down by David W. Blight about the first Decoration Day, which happened in Charleston, South Carolina, on May 1, 1865. It was celebrated not by grieving Civil War soldiers’ widows, but by 10,000 free blacks, who affirmed their freedom and sense of belonging within the newly recreated United States; and because they felt it was the right thing to do, re-interred thousands of Union prisoners of war on an old racecourse, a classic symbol of southern wealth and privilege. Not surprisingly, when the annals of history are consulted, little record remains of this first celebration. Read more about this meaningful event and the brave individuals who conducted it here.
Freedom, of course, isn’t free. There will probably always be instances of one individual’s or group’s wish to dominate over another, or all the rest of us. Quiet, resilient, strong, and yes, stubborn resistance and dedication such as was shown by black men, women, and children in Charleston on May 1, 1865 may be, in the end, the most steadfast of struggles. By definition, it is also the most difficult to counteract, which makes it one of the best.
Violence is never the answer, as we all know. It’s a good time to remember this, as we honor those who went before, in their struggles for belief and protection of those beliefs. Let’s not give over to mindless celebrations vaunted by “giant corporations, which make guns, bombs, fighter planes, aircraft carriers and an endless assortment of military junk and which await the $100 billion in contracts to be approved soon by Congress and the President,” as Howard Zinn admonishes in his 1976 classic essay. He correctly states, “Let the dead of past wars be honored. Let those who live pledge themselves never to embark on mass slaughter again.”
So pack a basket, and take a book to the cemetery for a solitary meal with those who’ve gone before, and perhaps share a song and lay some flowers. Or we can read of peace, in quiet understanding, in our homes where those of us who consider such things important continue to self-isolate and care for our families. Here are a few ideas, including recent offerings, that in the coming weeks may help pave the way toward a different way of thinking about your brave new world.