Put the 'memory' back in Memorial Day

This Memorial Day weekend many of us will fire up our grills, head to the beach, and officially welcome summer back from its long vacation. Memorial Day, a hallowed day really, has turned into little more than a three-day weekend for most. It's become a frenzy of sales, traffic jams, and cookouts. The day seems to have lost its meaning.

The day has its roots in the aftermath of the Civil War. The bloody havoc of that war had barely receded when Gen. John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, issued General Order No. 11. In his May 5, 1868, proclamation, General Logan said: "Let us ... gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with the choicest flowers of springtime.... Let us in this solemn presence renew our pledges to aid and assist those whom they have left among us as sacred charges upon the Nation's gratitude - the soldier's and sailor's widow and orphan."

Thus was the very first Memorial Day observed on May 30, 1868. Flowers were laid on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. As a sign of a still divided nation, the South refused to mark the day, instead honoring its dead on other days until after World War I. The holiday changed from honoring those who died in the Civil War to those Americans who died fighting in any war.

So it is my hope that sometime during this weekend, in between the burgers and s'mores, people will take time to recall those Americans who stormed the beaches, trekked through the jungles, and tramped through snow so that we may live freely.

Perhaps sometime during this weekend people will make the time to visit a cemetery and place a flag or flower on the grave of a fallen hero, visit a memorial, or fly the US flag at half-staff. Rather than be frustrated by holiday traffic, take a moment to reflect on what this day means. Think about those families torn apart by the wars this nation has fought. And finally, think about the strength and good this country has shown and can show again.

For whether you agree with this commander in chief or those who have held the office in the past, whether you agree with the policies that have sent our young people across the seas and sands now or in the past, we must not fail to remember this: Our nation, in its perfectly imperfect union, exists because of all those brave souls who have put country before self since the battle of Lexington and Concord.

And I'm reminded of Sir Walter Scott's words:

Soldier, rest! thy warfare o'er,

Sleep the sleep that knows not breaking;

Dream of battled fields no more,

Days of danger, nights of waking.

Cathryn J. Prince is author of 'Shot from the Sky: American POWs in Switzerland.'

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