America has a way of trivializing holidays. Christmas has been transformed from a religious occasion into a secular rite of shopping; the underlying meaning of Easter also is largely forgotten. Whatever significance Labor Day has these days, it certainly is not connected with industrial unions. As for Memorial Day, it has become a Bacchanalia that ushers us into the hedonism of summer.
This is a far cry from the grief and mourning that prompted women in the South to place flowers on the graves of fallen soldiers even before the Civil War was ended. The custom spread rapidly, leading to formal observances.
In 1868, a national Memorial Day was born with celebrations held at the National Cemetery in Arlington, Va. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was present. "If silence is ever golden, it must be here beside the graves of 15,000 men whose lives were more significant than speech and whose death was a poem the music of which can never be sung," observed the main speaker, Gen. James A. Garfield.
Over the years, such Civil War battlefields as Gettysburg and Antietam have become sites of particularly poignant Memorial Day celebrations. During the past year, interest in that fratricidal war was rekindled by a monumental public-television series. As a result, unusually large crowds are expected to pay homage at those two battlefields.
Yet Memorial Day today commemorates not only the Civil War dead but men and women who have died in more than a hundred conflicts since. Two world wars, Korea, Vietnam, Grenada and Operation Desert Storm are among the best known but they are not the only ones.
A consequence of America's mobility is that even old families seldom live close to ancestral homes. This has decreased visits to graves on occasions such as Memorial Day.
Yet there is no reason why we should not lay flowers on graves of strangers who gave their lives to their country. In fact, there is no better way to observe Memorial Day than to take a flower or garland to the grave of a stranger, mourning death and celebrating life.