It is very easy with the busy lives we all live to think of Memorial Day simply as a day off from work and a long holiday weekend. However, I think it is important to take some time and reflect on the true meaning of the day.
The original name for Memorial Day was “Decoration Day.” The focus was to remember those who gave their lives in the Civil War between the American states to preserve the Union. On that first Decoration Day in 1868, Congressman James Garfield, who would become our 20th President, addressed a crowd at Arlington Cemetery with the following speech:
“I am oppressed with a sense of the impropriety of uttering words on this occasion. If silence is ever golden, it must be here beside the graves of 15,000 men, whose lives were more significant than speech, and whose death was a poem, the music of which can never be sung. With words we make promises, plight faith, praise virtue. Promises may not be kept; plighted faith may be broken; and vaunted virtue be only the cunning mask of vice. 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.”
“For the noblest man that lives, there still remains a conflict. He must still withstand the assaults of time and fortune, must still be assailed with temptations, before which lofty natures have fallen; but with these the conflict ended, the victory was won, when death stamped on them the great seal of heroic character, and closed a record which years can never blot.”
“What other spot so fitting for their last resting place as this under the shadow of the Capitol saved by their valor? Here, where the grim edge of battle joined; here, where all the hope and fear and agony of their country centered; here let them rest, asleep on the Nation’s heart, entombed in the Nation’s love!”
Whenever I personally reflect on Memorial Day, I immediately recall visiting the site of the 1942 Normandy invasion and spending a lot of time walking through the American Cemetery in Normandy. Seeing thousands of white crosses in rows in the cemetery with the names of American soldiers — many of them mere boys between the ages of 18 and 20 — puts everything in perspective.
My father, Harry Kraemer, Sr., proudly told me the story many times of enlisting in the Navy on the day he turned eighteen years old as a senior in high school. He informed the nuns at St. Mary’s High School in Scranton, Pennsylvania that he had signed up and wanted to say goodbye. The head nun informed him, “That is fine Harry, but tomorrow you are taking your final exams before you take off.” He was so proud of how his entire class paraded him to the train for his trip to boot camp.
President Ronald Reagan gave a Memorial Day speech at Arlington Cemetery in 1982 that summarizes the meaning of Memorial Day perfectly:
“My fellow citizens:
In America’s cities and towns today, flags will be placed on graves in cemeteries; public officials will speak of the sacrifice and the valor of those whose memory we honor. In 1863, when he dedicated a small cemetery in Pennsylvania marking a terrible collision between the armies of North and South, Abraham Lincoln noted the swift obscurity of such speeches. Well, we know now that Lincoln was wrong about that particular occasion. His remarks commemorating those who gave their ‘last full measure of devotion’ were long remembered. But since that moment at Gettysburg, few other such addresses have become part of our national heritage — not because of the inadequacy of the speakers, but because of the inadequacy of words. I have no illusions about what little I can add now to the silent testimony of those who gave their lives willingly for their country. Words are even more feeble on this Memorial Day, for the sight before us is that of a strong and good nation that stands in silence and remembers those who were loved and who, in return, loved their countrymen enough to die for them. Yet, we must try to honor them — not for their sakes alone, but for our own. And if words cannot repay the debt we owe these men, surely with our actions we must strive to keep faith with them and with the vision that led them to battle and to final sacrifice. Our first obligation to them and ourselves is plain enough: The United States and the freedom for which it stands, the freedom for which they died, must endure and prosper. Their lives remind us that freedom is not bought cheaply. It has a cost; it imposes a burden. And just as they whom we commemorate were willing to sacrifice, so too must we — in a less final, less heroic way — be willing to give of ourselves.”
At the Memorial Day mass that Julie and I attended yesterday morning at the Sheil Catholic Center, Father Kevin quoted from the Gospel of St. John, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13) This is exactly what so many of these men and women have done for us.
Please join me in thanking all of those that have served and all of those that served and gave their lives for our freedom. May we pray to God that their efforts will never be forgotten.