By MARSHA MERCER
For many of us, Memorial Day is a long weekend of backyard barbecues and beach trips, the unofficial start of summer fun.
But it wasn’t always so. Memorial Day began as a spontaneous outpouring of grief after the ravages of the Civil War.
At least 620,000 soldiers – about 2.5 percent of the population – perished in that war. Recent estimates put the toll far higher – closer to 20 percent of the population. Nearly every family lost someone. To cope with their sorrow, groups of women began visiting their loved ones’ graves and decorating them with spring flowers.
The ritual, known as Decoration Day, sprang up in the North and South. One of the first was in Columbus, Ga., in April 1866, when women visited a cemetery to put flowers on the graves of Confederate soldiers who had died in the bloody battle of Shiloh four years earlier. Seeing the neglected graves of Union soldiers, the women also placed flowers there.
In 1868, Maj. Gen. John A. Logan, who led an organization of Union veterans, declared that Decoration Day should be observed on May 30 with ceremonies and strewn flowers. It’s thought he chose the date because flowers would be in bloom all over the country, according to a Department of Veterans Affairs history.
By the end of the 19th century, nearly every community dedicated May 30 to remember their Civil War dead. After World War I, the commemoration was extended to honor all who died in American wars.
How, you ask, did we go from solemnly strewing flower petals to buying mattresses, appliances and big screen TVs?
Thank -- or blame – the 1960s, Congress and President Lyndon Johnson. LBJ signed the Uniform Holiday bill in 1968, and, since 1971, Memorial Day, Veterans Day and Washington’s birthday (now Presidents Day) have been commemorated on Mondays.
“This will mean a great deal to our families and our children,” LBJ said in a signing statement. “It will enable families who live some distance apart to spend more time together. Americans will be able to travel farther and see more of this beautiful land of ours. They will be able to participate in a wide range of recreational and cultural activities.”
He didn’t predict that the true meaning of the holidays might get lost in traffic jams.
For years, the late Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii tried to restore the dignity of Memorial Day. Inouye, a veteran who lost his right arm in combat in World War II, introduced a bill in every Congress to move Memorial Day back to May 30.
“In our effort to accommodate many Americans by making the last Monday in May Memorial Day, we have lost sight of the significance of this day to our nation,” Inouye said in a speech on the Senate floor in 1999. “Instead of using Memorial Day as a time to honor and reflect on the sacrifices made by Americans in combat, many Americans use the day as a celebration of the beginning of summer,” he said.
Inouye continued his valiant effort until his death in 2012. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa of Hawaii has taken up the quest, introducing the bill last year.
We don’t have to wait on Washington to honor the fallen on Memorial Day. Many of the 131 national cemeteries as well as state veterans cemeteries have ceremonies on or around Memorial Day. To find one near you, check out the list on the VA's National Cemetery Administration page.
At a time when the VA is suffering from a health care scandal, here’s some good news. Veterans’ survivors rank employees at the national cemeteries tops in customer service among all federal agencies and major national corporations.
The American Customer Satisfaction Index surveys people about their dealings with government agencies and companies. Every three years, the survey asks about national cemeteries. In each of the last five surveys – 2001, 2004, 2007 and 2010 and 2013 – the cemeteries have received the top rating for customer service in the public and private sectors.
National cemeteries are quiet, green spaces that invite solemn reflection. Make time for a walk in history. Read the names and dates on the white markers. Thank those who gave their all for us and our freedom. Happy Memorial Day.
© 2014 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.