Memorial Day is the most solemn of our national holidays. It is meant to be a time for Americans to remember, with appropriate displays of gratitude and honor, those who have died while fighting our country’s wars.
We must be especially careful this year, in the absence of large public gatherings, and amid all the fears, frustrations and losses from the global pandemic, that the true meaning of this national holiday not be lost.
The grievous trials of the past three months cannot be allowed to diminish the realization of how blessed we have been by the willingness of every generation of Americans thus far to risk everything dear to them to preserve the precious gift of freedom. Indeed, if we allow ourselves genuinely to remember this all-important fact, the most unusual circumstances of Memorial Day 2020 might even enhance its meaning.
The first observance of this holiday, originally known as “Decoration Day” because it called for the placement of flowers on the graves of the war dead, came in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. We still observe this particular ritual, but also remember the dead with parades, and with ceremonies and commemorative addresses at national cemeteries or battlefield shrines attended by hundreds and sometimes many thousands of people.
It was my good fortune, one year ago, to be present for the Memorial Day observance at the Normandy American Cemetery high above Omaha Beach, the five-mile stretch of sand hallowed forever by the thousands of our countrymen who died there in one of the opening events of D-Day in June 1944.
Last year marked the 75th anniversary of the invasion of Normandy and the beginning of the liberation of France and the rest of German-held Western Europe. Two weeks ago marked the same anniversary for the end of World War II in Europe. Later this summer, we will commemorate the defeat of Japan and the end of the war in Asia and the Pacific 75 years ago.
These special anniversaries seemed poised to bring an additional measure of notice, and of poignancy, to Memorial Day 2020 — that is, until the coronavirus crisis captured the nation’s attention as few developments since 1945 have managed to do.
All of our country’s wars have, though perhaps in varying degrees, put at issue the ideas and the way of life that Americans have consistently claimed to value. Our freedom here at home, as well as the freedom of those denied it around the world, has been the cause for which hundreds of thousands of our countrymen across the generations have made the ultimate sacrifice.
We honor the dead because of the debt we owe them, but also as a way of recommitting ourselves to the kind of sacrifice too often necessary to preserve our cherished way of life and the ideals upon which it is based. As Abraham Lincoln put it in his immortal Gettysburg Address in 1863, with thousands of Union war dead looking down upon him from the new national cemetery he was helping to dedicate: “It is for us the living . . . to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.”
To the degree that, in this fallen world, the work of securing our freedom is never finished, Memorial Day is still meant to be an occasion for renewal as much as remembering.