By Talmage P. Ekanger, J.D.
Memorial Day has all too often been celebrated only for the long weekend provided by employers, a day at the lake or a chance to catch up on yard work—while the underlying meaning and importance has been ignored. On a day when we should be teaching our children about this nation’s heroes and their dedication to a greater purpose, it is tempting (and common) to let the day pass without even a mention of its true purpose or historical import.
Birthed out of the Civil War, “Decoration Day” was the day set aside for the decorating of graves for those who lost their lives in the Civil War. Although the origins of Decoration Day remain unclear, shrouded in inconsistent stories and legend, Decoration Day was without a doubt, a day of mourning. The American Civil War left no family untouched. After five years of fighting, at least 240,000 soldiers had been killed in battle. Another 414,000 would be taken from their families by disease. Almost two percent of America’s population was lost to the war, and Decoration Day grew from mourning the tremendous loss felt from that war.
Many years later, we now observe Memorial Day in its place on the last Monday of May each year. While those among us with friends and relatives presently serving our country in a foreign theater should take Memorial Day to celebrate and thank God that our loved ones survive, the families of those who have fallen will undoubtedly remember Memorial Day in much the same way as our great grandparents remember Decoration Day after the Civil War—as a day of remembering loved ones lost to a greater cause.
USMemorialDay.org has undertaken the task of helping Americans understand and observe Memorial Day in a way fitting of the day’s purpose. The Web site suggests the following as possible ways to observe Memorial Day and honor the sacrifice of those who fought to defend and protect this great nation:
- Visit cemeteries and place flags or flowers on the graves of our fallen soldiers.
- Visit national war memorials.
- Fly the United States flag at half-staff in the morning.
- Fly the “POW/MIA Flag” alongside the United States flag.
- Participate in a “National Moment of Remembrance” at 3 p.m. to reflect upon Memorial Day’s true meaning and listen to the Taps being played.
- Pledge to aid the widows, widowers and orphans of our fallen dead, and to aid the disabled veterans.
In addition to the suggestions provided above, Memorial Day can also be a day of teaching for yourself, and for your children. Memorial Day could be well spent taking a child to visit war veterans in a nursing home. Although many of our WWII vets have retired into homes, their service to this nation should not be considered over. Their knowledge, stories and love for the country should be shared with our children. Most WWII vets are quite happy to tell stories and pass on their wisdom, and the life and excitement brought to a nursing home by an eager child will brighten everyone’s day.
Then take your children to the library to check out one of the excellent books about those who have served in our armed forces. “Memorial Day Surprise” by Theresa Golding or “The Wall” by Eve Bunting are good places to start. For adults or mature teens, “Moment of Truth in Iraq” by Michael Yon gives an incredible look at the courage, skills and compassion of our soldiers serving today.
This year, don’t let Memorial Day pass as just a good weekend for going to the lake or throwing a barbecue. Take some time to remember this country’s heroes, both fallen and living, and honor them for their service.
Talmage Ekanger is a husband, father of three, writer, and attorney-turned-information-technology-supervisor. A native South Dakotan, he’s grateful for the chance to raise his family in the land of the free and the home of the brave.