In the years following the American Civil War, a tradition began to grow among those left behind by a family member or loved one, lost to war. During the fading days of May, the graves of fallen soldiers would be decorated during gatherings at graveside, in remembrance of their ultimate sacrifice.
There is some quibbling among historians as to precisely when and where the first “Decoration Day” was held. I rather suspect that there was no first occasion which spawned the others. It seems more likely to me that the tradition sprang up naturally among people in many places, a natural yearning, in the springtime of the year, for a little hands-on ritual and ceremony, among a people still struggling with loss and confusion in the wake of our most dreadful conflict.
And so, the people of the past century would gather their families to share a meal, sometimes spread picnic style among graves newly tended and festooned with flowers and ribbons. They would dine among the dead, sharing tales of their valor and heroism with children who would otherwise remember them only as names etched in stone or a yellowed photo, framed upon the mantle.
The parades and political speeches, the concerts and retail sales — that stuff came later, along with the name change to ‘Memorial Day’.
I’ve read a lot of articles, in these last few days leading up to the holiday, from people deeply concerned that you should know, “Memorial Day is not just about firing-up the barbecue!”
Well no, it’s not, but let us not downplay the power of a neighborhood cookout.
We, as a culture, sometimes seem so eager to distance ourselves from the more visceral aspects of our lives (and deaths). We don’t like to get our hands dirty and so we civilize and formalize and memorialize our societal rituals, often beyond recognition. We lose touch with the emotional need, the spiritual impetus which instills within us the call to celebrate and to mourn.
We transform a local tradition of ribbons and flowers into a national procession of perfect little flags in perfect little rows set before perfect little stones. Oh, by all means, let us have our color guards and marching bands all draped in a jingoistic wash of red, white and blue; give us our twenty-one rounds fired into a blue sky while a bugler plays Taps in somber tones. Let us dull our senses with scripted testimonials and stale protocols…,
We could have a cookout.
We could put the “Decoration” back into Memorial Day and adorn the graves of our honored dead with flowers and tokens of love and appreciation. Maybe we could just wander among the graves, reading the names and dates, listening to the sound of children playing hide and seek among the stones.
I can think of no better way to praise the dead, than to bring to their resting places the sounds of life and love and laughter. These are the very same gifts which they have rendered unto us through their service and their sacrifice.
When you have spent some time among the graves, when you have awakened their spirits with the breath of life, go home and (weather permitting) fire up that grill under an open sky.
Will it be grilled burgers on toasted buns, or maybe some juicy brats with spicy mustard and onion on a hard roll? Open a beer, pass the chips, and share your memories of the fallen. Do not memorialize them by making them larger than life. Simply remember them as they were, without the platitudes and the flag-waving. We honor them best through the simple act of living our lives, dearly won, in peace and fellowship.