Memorial Day falls on the last Monday of May, which ensures that spring foliage is in full bloom in most parts of the United States.
That is appropriate. Natures bright bounty this time of year infuses with hope a national holiday that was established to remember men and women who died while serving in Americas armed forces.
There are many to commemorate: 625,000 Union and Confederate soldiers died in the American Civil War. After that epic conflict, communities throughout young America felt strongly the need to honor their war dead. The day to do so was formerly called Decoration Day, referring to the practice of decorating soldiers graves with flowers.
The custom of adorning soldiers graves is an ancient one. Before the Civil War, Americans privately paid their respects to patriots who fell in the Revolutionary War (25,000), the War of 1812 (15,000) and the Mexican-American War (13,283).
By the 20th century, the idea evolved to honor all Americans who died while serving in our countrys armed forces. Those holidays were keenly felt after World War I, which claimed 116,516 American lives, and World War II, which saw 405,399 Americans fall throughout the world.
The Memorial Days that followed honored 36,516 Americans who lost their lives in the Korean War and 58,178 who perished in the Vietnam conflict. The parades, graveside ceremonies, prayers and commemorations continue to this day as we mourn and honor our countrymen and women who made the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq and Afghanistan, among them 295 10th Mountain Division soldiers who have died since 9/11.
Something else happened by the 20th century. For some Americans, Memorial Day also presented an occasion to remember deceased loved ones in general, whether they had served in the military or not. And today, Memorial Day signals the advent of summer and is part of a three-day weekend that includes joyous celebrations complete with barbecues and recreation.
Memory is both powerful and poignant. Memories remind us of what we have experienced and where we have been. They play a significant part in who we are. That is true for a nation, too. Memorial Day offers an opportunity for Americans to reflect, if only for a moment, on our collective history. We need to honor those whose love and courage made this day of freedom possible.
In Walt Whitmans poem, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed, the lilacs that blossom in spring are yearly reminders of the death of President Abraham Lincoln. Likewise, Memorial Day mixes the bitter and the sweet: at this glorious time of year, we remember those who died answering the call to serve our beloved country.
While enjoying the weekend, let us honor those brave souls in our hearts and minds.