It’s Memorial Day, which I am celebrating in the traditional American way, a barbecue. Although I am also sort of visiting a cemetery, since my friend’s backyard backs up on one. But that doesn’t mean I can’t take a moment to think about what it really means and why it is a unique holiday. Fair warning, this involves a lot of use of Rang De Basanti.
Memorial Day started in America after the Civil War, the war which left more Americans dead than any other before or since. Because Americans were fighting on both sides. The war left a gash in the face of the nation, we needed something to give us all closure, but how to do that fairly, recognizing the Americans dead on both sides? The answer was something originally called “Decoration Day”. Scheduled for a day when no battles had been fought in the war, commemorating nothing, simply a day when everyone everywhere would go to a cemetery and decorate a grave.
Decoration Day slowly turned into Memorial Day and also became an international holiday. Europe discovered a need for it after WWI. That was another war with just an unimaginable number of dead on both sides, and a need to honor them all equally. So it turned into “Poppy Day”, poppies being sold to raise money for veterans in a reference to the “Flanders Field” poem. And became a day to honor sacrifice for your country, no matter what country that was.
It’s a unique holiday, not celebrating soldiers for winning battles, or even for fighting on your side instead of the other, but merely for the act of fighting and dying. To honor the fallen simply because they are dead.
And it is also a recognition that there is a value in death for the wider community. Honoring it ties us together, makes our connections stronger, and as Lincoln said, “hallows this ground”.
This is a universal need. Every community will have a death at some point and instead of trying to make meaning and purpose from it, they will need a time to simply honor and recognize it. It doesn’t matter if the battle is won or lost, all that matters sometimes is that people showed up to fight for us and with us.