No fewer than 25 cities claim to be the birthplace of today's Memorial Day holiday, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
The holiday has its earliest roots in the days following the Civil War.
The South’s origin stories include a group of women in Columbus, Miss., visiting a cemetery to decorate the graves of fallen Confederate soldiers 155 years ago. The bloody battles of the Civil War were just 13 months in the past, but the women, noting the neglected, bare graves of enemy Union soldiers, decided to place flowers on those as well.
The North, likewise, claims an organization of Union veterans, the Grand Army of the Republic, which, on May 5, 1858, three years after the Civil War, established "Decoration Day" to urge placing flowers on the graves of war dead. It chose May 30 for the annual decorating since flowers are in bloom across much of the nation by then.
In 1966, Congress and President Lyndon Johnson settled the origin argument by declaring Waterloo, N.Y., the official "birthplace" of Memorial Day. Congress declared Memorial Day a national holiday in 1971 and decided it should be observed, always, on the last Monday in May.
No matter where today's holiday came from, we can all agree with its lasting significance, how it's "a solemn day of mourning (and) a sacred day of remembrance to honor those who paid the ultimate price for our freedoms," as the nonprofit usmemorialday.org aptly states.
More eloquently perhaps, "Veterans are a symbol of what makes our nation great, and we must never forget all they have done to ensure our freedom," as former U.S. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey once said.
The day is for remembering our heroes. But has Memorial Day lost its way over the years and decades? Is it more about mattress sales now and marking the start of summer than honoring and remembering?
"Too many people celebrate the day without more than a casual thought to (its) purpose and meaning," the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War writes at its website. "How do we honor the 1.8 million that gave their life for America since 1775? How do we thank them for their sacrifice?
"We need to put the memorial back in Memorial Day and observe the day as it was originally intended."
This year seems an ideal chance to do just that. With graveside ceremonies and other commemorations and events possible again amidst a gradual easing of COVID-19 restrictions, we have the chance to reflect and honor in the ways we always have. With our loved ones, even those just in our hearts.
“The more we make Memorial Day about remembering our fallen warriors, the better off we are as Americans,” James Jay Carafano, a vice president at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C., wrote in a column last week. “There have always been so many willing to fight and die to ensure the rest of us can live in freedom, peace and prosperity. The nobility of their sacrifice, regardless of the war or terms of service, deserves our prayerful thanks. It not only affirms who they were; it is a validation of who we are: a nation worth fighting for.”
We owe it to those who went to war and never returned, and to our nation, to take at least a moment today to commemorate, not to celebrate, and to find appreciation, too, for the spouses and children and friends and others left behind by our heroes.
Just as Americans did in the wake of the Civil War, we can “decorate” in our own ways to mark the pain of our shared past and to recall those who stepped up to preserve our nation.
This other view is the opinion of the editorial board of our sister publication, the Duluth News Tribune.