Now I know I am probably in a distinct minority on this one, because if that were the case, we would not have had a three-day weekend this year. But I am an old stick-in-the-mud, and there’s something to be said for remembering where traditions come from and what they are supposed to be about.
May 30th was established as the original Memorial Day in the years right after the Civil War. Actually, they didn’t call it Memorial Day much at first, but Decoration Day. That’s because the idea behind the holiday was, quote, “for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in the defense of our country during the late rebellion.”
Those are the words of a Civil War general named John Logan, who went on to found and lead a veterans’ organization called the Grand Army of the Republic, GAR for short, which became the first major interest group to powerfully influence American politics.
Unlike modern interest groups, however, it was itself term-limited, since it was only open to Civil War veterans, which means that it went out of business when all of its members eventually died.
But for many years, it was a very big deal. You have to remember that the death toll in the Civil War was staggering. Two percent of the nation’s population died in the war.
The percentage of Michigan men who lost their lives was slightly higher.
That would be equivalent to losing more than six million men in a war today. As far as anyone now knows, Memorial Day was first celebrated in Michigan at Detroit’s Elmwood Cemetery on May 30, 1868. They had a bunch of flags, a badly stuffed bald eagle and a military band from Fort Wayne.
Veterans soon discovered the art of the parade, and politicians discovered parades were good opportunities to connect with voters.
Teddy Roosevelt was the star attraction in a Memorial Day parade on Woodward Avenue in 1918, held while World War I was still raging. Other wars followed, producing new martyrs, new veterans, and new graves to honor.
Michigan made its own contribution to Memorial Day; we started the custom of scattering flowers on the water to honor naval heroes. Memorial Day was probably the biggest deal ever when I was a little boy in the 1950s. There were immense annual parades; and even people who hadn’t lost relatives in battle would go to cemeteries with flowers.
But gradually, our lives changed. Populations dispersed; wars became less popular, we became more selfish.
In 1968, with half a million American soldiers still in Vietnam, Congress changed Memorial Day to the last Monday of the month, so we could all take three-day weekends.
Veterans felt their holiday had been trivialized, and they had a point. Americans no longer have to serve in the military, and our wars are smaller.
Fewer of us think much about the meaning of this day. Yet in the past year, thirteen more flag-draped coffins have come home to our state from battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan.
My guess is that for those men’s families, Memorial Day weekend will forever have an entirely different meaning.