From Decoration Day to Memorial Day

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Reading the obituaries of the war dead from Iraq and Afghanistan prompts a thought. Shouldn't we step away from our cookouts and honor the origins of the Memorial Day weekend by visiting the graves of the war dead?


As we think of American soldiers overseas on this Memorial Day weekend, I'm sure many people are praying for the safe return of all of them. But despite the growing unpopularity of the war and the diminishing numbers of people who believe this country should be fighting in Iraq, many Americans are still thinking of the people there, still responding to polls and surveys saying it would be wrong to leave Iraq in chaos.

The President said again this week that troops won't leave until they win, which presumably means they won't be coming home soon. Meanwhile, we do what every country does in wartime, we count the cost. Primarily, we count the cost in lives, 2654, when I checked this morning.

I've talked to lots of people around the country who read the obituaries as a kind of duty to the war dead. A woman in central Wisconsin told me she was particularly affected by the obituary of a young man who went to Iraq right out of high school, a boy who hadn't yet made much of a mark on the world. Even friends at home are unable to say much about his unlived life.

It haunted me, she said, that this baby that never found his life, is dead.

In the old days, communities traditionally decorated the graves of war dead on this weekend, and then it became a day to take care of all the graves. I remember picnics at the cemetery weeding the plots and washing the headstones. That has slipped into a tradition of cookouts this weekend. And then there's the new custom, Memorial Day sales.

Of course, families who've lost someone need no special day to refresh memories. For the rest of us, maybe we ought to return to the spirit of what used to be called Decoration Day. If you haven't done it in a while, you might consider an old fashioned Memorial Day, a visit to those rolling hills covered with little markers that we see at Arlington and at hundreds of other military cemeteries around the country. If you do go, you'll likely find a little flag at every grave, a Decoration Day custom that does survive.

The cemeteries where American soldiers are buried are often very beautiful, here and overseas. In France, the First World War cemeteries are near the battlefields, and there really are a crosses row on row, and stars. In any of these places, it's interesting to walk along the grassy rows reading the dates and names, wondering who they were, what they were like. Of course, the overpowering impression on Memorial Day, or any day, is, there are so many.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Singer: (Singing) Till the end of time. Long as stars are in the blue. Long as there's a spring of birds.

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