For most Americans, Memorial Day signifies the beginning of summer, and is generally celebrated by picnics, barbeques, and outdoor parties. For those of us in Indiana, the weekend is dominated by the running of the Indy 500 race every year.
However, for some Unitarian Universalist families, Memorial Day can cause uncomfortable feelings. Does honoring the sacrifice of those in uniform also celebrate war? How can we remember the fallen and celebrate at the same time? And, given the seemingly endless wars our country is currently engaged in, how do we reconcile our personal feelings about war yet support our troops and their families who are left behind?
Perhaps we need only to go back to history, and consider where and how this celebration evolved. The very first Memorial Day, the story goes, was originated by newly freed slaves in Charleston, South Carolina, who gathered May 5, 1865, to express their gratitude to the Union soldiers who had perished in an open-air Confederate prison. As Yale historian David Blight describes it in his book, Race and Reunion, “the war was over, and Memorial Day had been founded by African Americans in a ritual of remembrance and consecration. But the struggle to own the meaning of Memorial Day . . . and of Civil War memory . . . had only begun.”
Over the years, as African Americans continued to be enslaved by the system even as they were freed in the eyes of the law, Memorial Day morphed into a day to commemorate all soldiers who died—Union or Confederate—as a way to unify the country. Following the first World War, the holiday was expanded to acknowledge the ultimate sacrifice of soldiers in all wars. The holiday lost its original meaning as a celebration of freedom for the former slaves who were thankful for their liberation, but we can remember. We can remember and teach our children about the injustice that so many worked so hard to end, and about what still needs to be done.
This Memorial Day, we can also remember that war is an evil that has plagued our world since time began, and that people continue to die and sacrifice themselves in the cause of freedom all over the world. We can have our picnics and outdoor parties and watch The Indy Race, all the while being thankful for the freedom we possess as Americans in this time and place. And we can do as the National Moment of Remembrance urges all of us to do: pause wherever we are at 3:00 PM local time for one minute of silence.