In 1868, the headquarters of the Grand Army of the Republic issued general orders that May 30 should be set aside for “decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country … whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard.”
Decoration Day became the precursor to our Memorial Day holiday. The Civil War had ended three years earlier, but the grief of that conflict could be seen everywhere. Graves in churchyards shouted in stone the terrible toll of that war between the states.
Springtime flowers were in bloom that first Decoration Day, just as they are this Memorial Day. Remembering with bright flowers the dead warriors – many of them boys on the cusp of adulthood – was intentional. Life and death. The cycles are inescapable.
In peacetime years, the origins and purpose of Memorial Day go underground. The holiday becomes a jumping-off weekend to summer fun. Bring out the barbecues. Pack the camper. Open the lake place. Full steam ahead.
We do not dwell in peacetimes. We can keep the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan out of mind by not calling them wars or by ignoring the news. Since 2002, the Inland Northwest has lost more than 30 young people in service to their country. Did you see their faces in the Sunday newspaper? Most were in their early 20s, born in the 1980s. So young. So gone from us.
And so on this Memorial Day, a somberness returns to the holiday. Many of the families and friends of the war dead will find their way to Inland Northwest cemeteries today to place spring flowers on stone graves or to attend memorial services.
There, they may see the men and women who maintain the rituals of remembrance. At Fairmount Memorial Park on Spokane’s North Side, for instance, 2,000 flags line the cemetery’s roads. Those flags have been put in place there for years now, during peacetime, during wartime.
Many of the ritual-keepers are older now, gray of hair, stooped of shoulder, survivors of World War II, Korea, Vietnam. They return year after year to cemeteries to sweep graves, stand at attention during ceremonies and choke back tears during taps and 21-gun salutes.
They tended to the rituals in peacetime, when others didn’t. The 1868 general orders anticipated the need for the stalwart. “If other hands slack, and other hearts cold in the solemn trust, ours shall keep it well. … We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors. Let no neglect testify to the coming generation that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.”
We cannot forget. We cannot neglect. This is the true message of Memorial Day, 140 years after its creation.