Memorial Day is a United States federal holiday observed on the last Monday of May. Formerly known as Decoration Day, it commemorates U.S. Service Members who died while in the military service. Originally enacted by formerly enslaved African-Americans to honor Union soldiers of the American Civil War, it was extended after World War I to honor Americans who have died in all wars.
What Is Memorial Day?
And yet by the early 20th century, Memorial Day was an occasion for more general expressions of memory, as ordinary people visited the graves of their deceased relatives, whether they had served in the military or not. It also became a long weekend increasingly devoted to shopping, family get-togethers, fireworks, and trips to the beach.
For Many Families, A Time Of Mourning
So let’s look at what’s going on in the United States this Memorial Day.
From The New York Times:
Today, there are families knotted in mourning for a soldier recently lost in Iraq or Afghanistan. There are families for which mourning has become an absence more persistently felt than they could ever have imagined.
There is still a generation mourning friends, relatives and fellow servicemen lost in Vietnam, Korea and World War II, their bodies interred all around the world. After a certain distance, the immediacy of memory is replaced by history.
We catch the family resemblance in photographs, we recognize the names on the gravestones, but these are soldiers we never knew, whose death, in World War I or the Civil War, changed our lives and the world we live in.
On Memorial Day, it is also worth remembering all those antecedents, lying in cemeteries across the country, who might be said to be looking for their descendants — families now so scattered that there is no one to remember how the young man-at-arms under that modest headstone was ever connected to the living world. Of all the graves where America’s military dead lie buried, how many today will be visited by family — and how many will remain unattended, unremembered, unknown?
Last American Survivor Of WW1 Died In February
The New York Times also reminds us that in February, the last surviving American veteran of the First World War died. And although it may be hard to imagine the day when we say goodbye to the last survivor of the Second World War, the calendar and the census do not lie.
Some 16 million Americans served in the military during World War II. On the 60th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor in 2001, about 5.5 million were still living. This year, as we prepare to mark the 70th anniversary, the number is closer to 1.5 million, and it drops by almost a thousand a day.
Take Time To Remember Those Who Died In The Name Of Freedom
On this Memorial Day, take a break from the hot dogs and the baseball game to remember those who gave their lives in the name of freedom.
Photo Credit: US Army Africa via Creative Commons