Today America celebrates Memorial Day. Although the holiday marks the unofficial beginning of summer, the day was officially proclaimed on 5 May 1868 by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, in his General Order No. 11, and was first observed on 30 May 1868, when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. General Logan’s order read in part:
“The 30th day of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet church-yard in the land. In this observance no form of ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit. We are organized, comrades, as our regulations tell us, for the purpose among other things, ‘of preserving and strengthening those kind and fraternal feelings which have bound together the soldiers, sailors, and marines who united to suppress the late rebellion.’ What can aid more to assure this result than cherishing tenderly the memory of our heroic dead, who made their breasts a barricade between our country and its foes? Their soldier lives were the reveille of freedom to a race in chains, and their deaths the tattoo of rebellious tyranny in arms. We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. All that the consecrated wealth and taste of the nation can add to their adornment and security is but a fitting tribute to the memory of her slain defenders. Let no wanton foot tread rudely on such hallowed grounds. Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no vandalism of avarice or neglect, no ravages of time testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic. If other eyes grow dull, other hands slack, and other hearts cold in the solemn trust, ours shall keep it well as long as the light and warmth of life remain to us. Let us, then, at the time appointed gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with the choicest flowers of spring-time; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved from dishonor; let us in this solemn presence renew our pledges to aid and assist those whom they have left among us a sacred charge upon a nation’s gratitude, the soldier’s and sailor’s widow and orphan.”
The idea of “strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves” did not originate with General Logan. There is evidence that women’s groups in the South were decorating graves before the end of the Civil War. One such piece of evidence is the title page of the sheet music for a hymn published in 1867 entitled “Kneel Where Our Loves are Sleeping” by Nella L. Sweet. The hymn carried the dedication “To the Ladies of the South Who are Decorating the Graves of the Confederate Dead.” In her hymn, Ms. Sweet penned these words:
Kneel where our loves are sleeping,
Dear ones loved in days gone by,
Here we bow in holy reverence,
Our bosoms heave the heartfelt sigh.
They fell like brave men, true as steel,
And pour’d their blood like rain.
We feel we owe them all we have,
And can but kneel and weep again.
Although Memorial Day was first established to honor the Civil War dead, it has become a day to remember and appreciate the sacrifice of all men and women who have given their lives in service of their country. I fear that too many people consider life cheap. Certainly terrorists who attack public places with impunity have no appreciation for the wonder that is life. Saint Augustine wrote:
“People travel to wonder at the height of the mountains, at the huge waves of the seas, at the long course of the rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motion of the stars, and yet they pass by themselves without wondering.”
On this Memorial Day, let us remember and honor the dead; but let us also remember the wonder of life and commit to living better. Mother Theresa wrote:
Life is an opportunity, benefit from it.
Life is beauty, admire it.
Life is bliss, taste it.
Life is a dream, realize it.
Life is a challenge, meet it.
Life is a duty, complete it.
Life is a game, play it.
Life is a promise, fulfill it.
Life is sorrow, overcome it.
Life is a song, sing it.
Life is a struggle, accept it.
Life is a tragedy, confront it.
Life is an adventure, dare it.
Life is luck, make it.
Life is too precious, do not destroy it.
Life is life, fight for it.
That about says it all — have a glorious Memorial Day and pause to remember those who have given all to protect liberty around the world.