Reflections on Memorial Day

The history of Memorial Day is a long one and, like so many other holidays we mark, its beginnings are just mysterious enough to lend some romance to the celebration.  Although not declared a national holiday by federal law until 1967, it’s widely believed that this day, originally called “Decoration Day” has been observed in our country since the Civil War.

This solemn day is very different from its late summer counterpart, Veterans’ Day.  Veterans’ Day is the day we show our gratitude to all those who serve or have served.  Although it is often misunderstood as a day to remember all of our dead, Memorial Day is meant to honor those women and men who have sacrificed their lives and who died while on active military duty.   It seems fitting that the tradition of marking this day in cemeteries continues.

At St. Peter’s, a parish so richly steeped in tradition, it is especially important that we respect and even embrace this custom.  Every Memorial Day, our weekday Mass is moved to 10:00am so that we may accommodate the Memorial Day service in our cemetery following Mass.  We are joined by the Mendota VFW’s Honor Guard.  Just as early Decoration Day ceremonies did, we have a service that combines our religious faith and the military honors our fallen soldiers deserve.  Also in keeping with past practices, we have an opportunity to share in a meal with one another, provided by the VFW at their hall in Mendota.

I am not so naïve to forget that for many, Memorial Day also marks the beginning of summer.  The first 3-day weekend of our much anticipated, and sorely needed, summer season.  For many of you, this is the first chance to get to your lake cabin and start getting it ready for family and friends.  For some, including the Amos’s this year, it’s the last weekend before high school graduation and the pressure is on to get our graduate- and ourselves- ready for ceremonies, family visits, and perhaps a big party.  For the parents of our 10th graders, it’s the weekend before Confirmation and many preparations are on the list.  I would not presume to suggest that we forgo all of those necessary items.   The soldiers we remember died because they believed in a country that afforded us the freedom to celebrate one another, to raise our children how we see fit, because they believed in the inherent beauty and dignity of every human person.

Amidst the business of everyday life, especially that particular business of the 3-day weekend, I would suggest, however, that we carve out just a couple hours to observe why it is we are fortunate enough to have this weekend.  The women and men who fought and sacrificed so that we might have it surely deserve a couple hours of our Monday.  Our family has always been incredibly moved by the services taking place in our community.  The one here at St. Peter’s is no exception.  It is important to Joe and I that we teach the kids where their freedom comes from.  We want them to know how incredibly lucky they are to have been born in a country that values freedom and respect so much that people have been willing to die for it.

Sadly, many of the graves of our military dead are neglected and in disrepair.  Perhaps you might pick up a few flowers and a small American Flag on your next trip to buy groceries and walk through a nearby cemetery on Monday.  Find a grave or two that look like they could use your help.  Many fallen soldiers’ graves designate their sacrifice in some way.

If you fly an American Flag at your home or workplace, use this as an opportunity to refresh your understanding of flag etiquette.  On Memorial Day, the flag is properly raised quickly to full staff, and then lowered to half mast until noon, when it is again raised to full staff.

Add prayers of gratitude to your family prayers this weekend.  We can offer thanksgiving to God for sending us such strong, brave protectors.  We can offer our prayers for their souls.

Artificial red poppies have been a symbol of our thanks since 1915 when a woman named Moina Michael began making and selling them to raise money for the widows and orphans of soldiers who died in France and Belgium.  By the 1920’s, they were worn to honor those who had died and continue to be a way for us to offer our thanks for the lives given by caring for those loved ones they left behind.   We can make an effort to carry a few dollars so that we can buy one or two from the veterans we see selling them.  We can wear them proudly and gratefully.

Please consider coming out on Monday morning.  Pray with us at 10:00am in the Historic Church, or join us at 10:30am in the cemetery.  Maybe you will be inspired to attend both.  Bring the kids if you have them.  There’s plenty of room at the cemetery for them to spread out.  We hope to hear their special “kid at Mass” noises that remind us that life goes on with joy and hope.   This Memorial Day, let us remember.

“Rest, comrades, rest and sleep!
The thoughts of men shall be
As sentinels to keep
Your rest from danger free.

Your silent tents of green
We deck with fragrant flowers;
Yours has the suffering been,
The memory shall be ours. “

(Excerpt, Henry Wordsworth Longfellow’s Decoration Day)

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