Who I think about on Memorial Day

Who I think about on Memorial DayThe meaning of Memorial Day often gets buried, between our modern attempts to reorient the observance into a kick-off for summer and the holiday's confusing origins in our country. Even deliberate attempts to set aside this day to remember our fallen can be difficult. I don’t personally know anyone killed in service, partly because modern technology has reduced the mortal impacts of warfare. (Sort of. I’ll circle back to this thought in a bit.)

Although the practice of decorating graves is ancient, most accounts of our national adoption of Memorial Day trace the first formal observances to the years immediately following the Civil War. Perhaps residual tension in our recently war-torn country contributed to the fact that a score of cities on each side of the divide all claim to have founded the holiday. (Even today, reports attempting to separate myth from truth are somewhat conflicting).

What just about everyone can agree on is that, after losing 600,000 souls in a bloody conflict, efforts to honor our dead in America became more common in 1865 and beyond. Beginning in 1868, May 30 of each year was set aside to honor those who gave their lives in service to our country.

In 1915 Lt. Col. John McCrae, a physician with the Canadian Expeditionary Force, introduced into the American consciousness the association of poppies with Memorial Day. Following the second battle of Ypres, he composed “In Flanders Fields,” the opening lines of which describe poppies blossoming on the graves of soldiers in Flanders. By 1918, inspired by McCrae’s poem, Moina Michael pinned a silk poppy to her coat and distributed others to her associates. In 1920 the American Legion adopted the poppy as their official symbol of remembrance.

Parades, graveside memorials and other observances proliferated across the country.

In 1970 Congress chose to move Memorial Day to the fourth Monday in May. As long as I have been alive, Memorial Day has been primarily renowned as a long weekend and an excuse to travel and barbecue.

Of course, there are many who still observe. American Legion Post 684 in Ridgecrest hosts an annual ceremony at Desert Memorial Park. However, this year, with restrictions relating to COVID-19, such a gathering may be outlawed.

For the last week, I’ve been reflecting on all of this. In doing so I realized that my difficulty in knowing how to observe the holiday has little to do with my not knowing people killed in battle. It has more to do with the fact that, just as warfare has evolved over time, so has (I believe) my definition of its casualties.

It is still critical to honor the memories of those who paid the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom and security whether we know them directly or not. Everything we value in our country depends on the willingness of the few to stand between us and our would-be tyrants and oppressors.

But I can only REMEMBER those men and women after they are gone. I cannot help them. What I can do is support the men and women who carry with them the lifelong wounds (seen and unseen) that often result in a loss in life sometime after they have left the battlefield. Perhaps it defeats the spirit of the holiday to intermix these issues, but I believe that our conscious efforts to reduce the mortality of our men and women of service is connected to the spirit of this holiday.

To those of you with friends and family members who died in service, my heart goes out to you and my prayers will be with you always. To those of us with veteran friends who have been wounded in body and spirit, yet remain in this realm, let’s make sure (this weekend, and always) that they, too, know of our love and gratitude. I believe that not everyone who survives the battlefield survives the war.

— Rebecca Neipp

Story First Published: 2020-05-22