After the Civil War, Americans were so grief-stricken that they created an informal holiday, later called Memorial Day, to publicly mourn their great loss.
Think about that for a moment.
Those of us who’ve lost loved ones often feel the need to remember them. We create rituals, or borrow from a spiritual or religious tradition, to ensure our beloved dead are not forgotten.
Now imagine an entire country losing between 600,000 and 800,000 soldiers. Imagine the national outpouring of heartbroken pain and loss.
That’s what happened in the 1860s.
No wonder the country had to do something, collectively, to heal themselves.
Actually, records discovered in the late 1990s show that one of the earliest commemorations was held on May 1, 1865. In Charleston, South Carolina a group of 10,000 Black people freed from enslavement gathered to honor dead Union soldiers.
They held a parade where thousands of school children marched with flowers and ministers read prayers.
The idea took hold and spread. Towns and cities, all over the country, started their own Decoration Day traditions. Held late in the spring every year, people would shut down their businesses for the day and decorate soldiers’ graves with flowers and flags.
This went on for over a hundred years before the official holiday, Memorial Day, became a federal observance in 1971. Now we not only mourn those killed in the Civil War, but all who died for our country.
Our family’s grief ritual.
My husband and I visited our local military cemetery every Memorial Day beginning in 2000, when our twin sons were barely 6 months old, until 2018 right before they left for college.
We can remember the days when hardly anyone showed up.
Back in 2000 and 2001, we could always find a parking space, a seat in front, and plenty of elbow-room as we walked around the graveyard. Hundreds of flags placed on the graves the night before. It was quiet. Peaceful.
That changed with 9/11 and our country’s war in Afghanistan.
The crowds grew and people came back every year with personal stories and memories to share.
The vibe was not always peaceful.
In Florida, where we raised our children, the crowds at these events were older, white, and from a military background. My family and I, as advocates and anti-racists, didn’t identify with their viewpoints, but we sat politely and focused on why we were there.
Often we sat toward the back in a row with several empty seats and tried to think happy thoughts when people quoted Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck.
“What do they mean by ‘a real patriot’?” my kids would ask.
I struggled to answer.
Many Americans find something else to do on Memorial Day.
They go to the beach, pool parties or cookouts. I don’t blame them.
Sitting amongst such angry people is difficult. Listening to them identify as patriots while spewing hate about those who look or love differently is also hard.
But after the band played Taps and my tears dried, I would walk around the graves with my family for a few minutes. We found some quiet spots. Peaceful moments.
We privately thanked those buried before us. My boys and I would talk about these brave strangers who gave the ultimate sacrifice and then we left to enjoy a beautiful day together.
Do you have a Memorial Day ritual?
This holiday is an annual opportunity to pay tribute to those who have died for our country. Often they didn’t have to serve. Many volunteered while others felt it their duty to step up when called.
Besides visiting a military cemetery for an official ceremony, here are some other ideas:
- Watch a movie that resonates with you and your loved ones. From gritty dramas to documentaries, some of our favorites include: Glory, Zero Dark Thirty, and Why We Fight.
- Attend a parade in your community or neighboring town.
- Put up a flag in front of your home or a red, white and blue star on the front door. Little flags go great along the driveway or among the shrubbery and flowers.
- Pause whatever you are doing at 3pm (local time) on Monday for one minute of silent reflection.
- Call your local VFW or Veteran’s Hospital for volunteer opportunities during the week leading up to Memorial Day. Many groups offer poppies, for a small donation, that you can wear on Monday, and the money goes toward rehab programs.
Spending some time in the morning, coming together as a country, can be cleansing. Let it fill you with gratitude for the many freedoms we have today.
Let it fill you with resolve to keep the country moving forward. So future generations have fewer dead to mourn during their Memorial Day observances.
Then enjoy that barbecue.