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From Decoration to Memorial Day

05 June 2015

Commemoration of the war dead is being renewed in the US, says Bill Countryman

IN THE United States, we observed the "Memorial Day" national holiday last week - somewhat like the commemorative aspect of the British Remembrance Day, although we also have 11 November as "Veterans Day". After our Civil War, which ended 150 years ago in April, both Union and Confederate survivors began commemorating their war dead in the late spring by clearing brush and weeds from cemeteries, and adorning graves with the season's plenitude of flowers.

Over the next few decades, the two sides' commemorations began to merge, perhaps partly because both had combatants buried at the main battlefields; perhaps, too, because a good many towns had provided soldiers to both armies. In the early 20th century, the observance gained a truly national character, and its focus broadened, especially after the First World War, to the commemorating of all our war dead.

When I was a small child, my family would go to my father's home town of Fairview, Oklahoma, to clear and decorate the family graves. I remember riding there in our crowded 1937 Chevrolet, with the strong aroma of Madonna Lilies, just cut from our garden, pervading the air. We still knew the occasion by its original name, "Decoration Day".

Oddly enough, it did not have much association for us with those who had died in wars. I think there was a veterans' ceremony at the cemetery; but we had almost no veterans in the family because the male generations fell just wrong for both world wars. The day was much more a family event - a reunion and a picnic in the cemetery: fried chicken, potato salad, bread-and-butter sandwiches, iced tea, pie.

Over succeeding decades, Memorial Day became little more than the semi-official beginning of summer. Yet I have been surprised to see, over the past couple of years, a marked turn towards reconnecting the day with its original purpose. In a way, it seems odd, since our recent wars, from Vietnam through to Iraq, have been so divisive politically. One thing that unites us, however, has been a shared distress at evidence of the neglect often shown to veterans and their families.

Commemorating the war dead is another thing that both doves and hawks among us can agree on. Hawks may see the dead more as valiant defenders; doves, as sacrifices to wrong-headed belligerence. But both can agree about the sorrow of lives cut short in war.


The Revd Dr Bill Countryman is Professor Emeritus of New Testament at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, California.

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