Memorial Day – What is the true cost of the holiday?



“Comment with your Memorial Weekend plans!” screamed a Facebook post with a loud red, white, and blue graphic splashed across the page, promising a cooler to one lucky winner, perfect for the upcoming weekend! I cringed as I clicked on the post to read the comments out of curiosity. I already knew what it would say. I already knew what it wouldn’t say.

What I’m describing is a recent post I saw on an online boutique’s Facebook page. They were offering a free cooler filled with beach towels, hats, tumblers, and a bright USA t-shirt to the winning participant. A classic PR stunt, with the purpose being to bring more traffic to their page, garner likes, and hopefully, get a few people to buy stuff from them in the end. It seems harmless, and it probably was. Yet, I was bothered. Without a doubt, there are many moments I am forced to realize how out of touch Americans are with reality. This was one of them. The post had been up less than 24 hours and had amassed 147 comments. By the end of the thread, I had no more faith in humanity than I did before I started reading. The theme was common. People are going to the lake, people will open their pool for the season, people are hitting up sales, people are having a barbecue. But no one said they were pausing to remember why it is we even have MEMORIAL Day. No one’s plans included a Memorial Day ceremony or visiting the graves of those who gave their lives so that we may have this wonderful “kickoff to summer” and “three-day weekend.”

For those of you who do not know, Memorial Day is a federal holiday set aside for all Americans to honor those who died in active military service, originally observed on May 30 but now officially observed on the last Monday in May. On May 5, 1868, three years after the conclusion of the Civil War, General John A. Logan called for a National Day of Remembrance, a Decoration Day, to be held later that month. The first one was May 30, 1868. The date had no particular meaning, it was not an anniversary of any battle. If you ask me, it was because he knew there would be more to come.

During that first commemorative event, James Garfield gave a speech at Arlington where 5,000 Americans had gathered to decorate the graves of those lost in what remains our country’s bloodiest war. His speech was strong and if you have never read it, I encourage you to. If you did not understand the cost of freedom before, perhaps you will after. The value is much higher than that of an Igloo cooler full of swag. Even in the early days of the country, Garfield understood that freedom isn’t free, and though that may sound cliché, it is true. It’s not free, in fact, since 1776 it has cost America over 1.3 million lives. That price continues to rise. During Garfield’s speech, he is quoted in saying “We do not know one promise these men made, one pledge they gave, one word they spoke; but we do know they summed up and perfected, by one supreme act, the highest virtues of men and citizens. For love of country, they accepted death, and thus resolved all doubts, and made immortal their patriotism and their virtue.”

These brave men and women should no doubt be celebrated for their bravery, and maybe part of doing that is remembering them as they were. Perhaps going to the lake or throwing a barbecue is a way of honoring the way the lost were when they were here.

At the risk of being categorized as being just another cynical old Veteran, I reached out to some of my friends, former coworkers, some who still remain in the military. What was their take on all this, I wanted to know? Were they as upset as I was at what seems like a dismissal of the one day a year we are supposed to dedicate to our WAR DEAD? In my circle, responses were similar. “Oh, we all get emotional at some point,” a friend who requested to be unnamed said, “but with those emotions come the good memories and in time I come to realize the good weighs out the bad. And maybe that is how we honor them the best. By doing our best to be happy and enjoy what they can’t anymore.” He paused. “I think that’s what they’d want. I think that’s why they gave what they did. Sowe can carry on.” But he shrugs, and you can tell he just is not sure. He is certainly not happy as Memorial Day approaches.

But what about the Gold Star families? After all, this is their holiday. Not sure what a Gold Star family is? Look it up. For all the debate over the holiday, no one knows better the true meaning than a Gold Star family. I am often reminded of a graphic I saw many years ago, yet it sticks in my brain. The cartoon depicts a family relaxing in their yard, the father is at the grill, smiles all around. The father says “This is great! I wish Memorial weekend was every weekend!” As you look to the next panel, you see a bereaved woman and her two children gazing at a photograph of a uniformed man on the mantle, next to a folded flag. The caption reads “For some families, it is.” There are no smiles. For them, it is never a “happy” Memorial Day, and I cannot for the life of me think of where the term “Happy Memorial Day” came from. Happy for who?

I think few true Americans would deny the sanctity of Memorial Day, if you were to ask them. But therein lies the problem, you have to ask for them to remember. This is the disconnect. I don’t believe the earlier referenced boutique is anti-American. I think that they simply do not think about it. And that is a problem. Naturally, a Gold Star family will have different feelings about the day than a family who does not even have close military ties. But even if you don’t have the scars, you can acknowledge the wounds. I’m not saying that there are only two options- either sit around and mourn all weekend OR to shop ‘til you drop and hit the lake. I think the best option is to enjoy your weekend, enjoy your families, attend celebrations for those who are no longer able. But do it in their honor, deliberately doing, or saying something to recognize their sacrifice. Educate your children, our next generation who we are counting on to carry on traditions that are meaningful. Don’t just tell them you’re off work because it’s a holiday. Let them know why it is a holiday, and what that holiday cost.

Is it wrong to celebrate? No, I suppose it isn’t. But your celebrations will be much more meaningful if you first take time out to acknowledge the high price of the opportunity to do so.