What Does Memorial Day Mean to You?

By Theodore T. Hodge

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
May 31, 2005


Q: Why do we celebrate Memorial Day?

a) To pay respect to those who have died in wars or in service of their country.

b) Because it is a good day for a BBQ at the park.

c) In order to have a three-day weekend.

If you chose b or c, you are probably in the majority. The correct answer, however, is a. From the annals of history, writes Beverly Hernandez:

The History of Memorial Day

It was 1866 and the United States was recovering from the long and bloody Civil War between the North and the South. Surviving soldiers came home, some with missing limbs, and all with stories to tell. Henry Welles, a drugstore owner in Waterloo, New York, heard the stories and had an idea. He suggested that all the shops in town close for one day to honor the soldiers who were killed in the Civil War and were buried in the Waterloo cemetery. On the morning of May 5, the townspeople placed flowers, wreaths and crosses on the graves of the Northern soldiers in the cemetery. At about the same time, Retired Major General Jonathan A. Logan, in Arlington, VA, planned another ceremony, this time for the soldiers who survived the war. He led the veterans through town to the cemetery to decorate their comrades' graves with flags. It was not a happy celebration, but a memorial. The townspeople called it Decoration Day…

In Retired Major General Logan's proclamation of Memorial Day, he declared:

"The 30th of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country and during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land. In this observance no form of ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit."

History also tells us that: “In 1971 President Richard Nixon declared Memorial Day a federal holiday on the last Monday in May. Memorial Day is not limited to honor only those Americans from the armed forces. It is also a day for personal remembrance. Families and individuals honor the memories of their loved ones who have died. Church services, visits to the cemetery, flowers on graves or even silent tributes mark the day with dignity and solemnity. It is a day of reflection. However, to many Americans the day also signals the beginning of summer with a three-day weekend to spend at the beach, in the mountains or at home relaxing.”

It is important for us Liberians to note that this holiday is the same day we call “Decoration Day” in Liberia. You will note through the reading here that it was originally called Decoration Day here as well. The two days have the same meaning both here and there.
Many Liberians living here in the US seem to attach much more importance to the secondary meaning of the holiday, “the beginning of summer”, than the original and more important meaning: a memorial to the dead.

During this weekend, many more festivities are planned and celebrated than at any other time of the year. A brief surf of the Internet will expose one to greetings of jubilation, one from the other, declaring, “Happy Memorial Day.” Did someone forget to tell my people that Memorial Day requires a solemn memorial, as the name implies, rather than a happy celebration?

Nobody needs to remind us Liberians that we are in the midst of recovery from a series of brutal and senseless civil wars. In fact, many of us are here as official refugees seeking asylum or having been granted asylum. We know our personal histories: In a nutshell, we have lost many dear ones to the brutality of war, all in the most recent past. If no one else remembers the significance of Decoration Day or Memorial Day, we should. The spirits of our dearly departed must be turning over in their resting places as we go about welcoming and celebrating the beginning of “summer”, during a time set aside for them.

During this Memorial Day weekend, I pause to remember the dearly departed among whom are my parents, siblings and other relatives, as well as former teachers and community elders too numerous to list. I remember some very good friends who passed away at an early age either as a result of war or other causes.

Because of the tremendous events touching our country over these last several years, resulting in countless deaths, it is quite necessary to pause and honor those unknown soldiers and civilians who have fallen in the line of duty or met their demise as civilian casualties of war. May their souls rest in eternal peace and may we never forget their contributions and sacrifice as we build a new nation.

The challenge is for us Liberians to remember the words of Abraham Lincoln who stood at Gettysburg and offered these words, “…that we here highly resolve these dead shall not have died in vain; that the nation, shall have a new birth of freedom…” We can begin this humble task by remembering that Memorial Day is set aside to honor the dead; it is not a happy celebration but a solemn memorial.