Memorial Day as we know it began after the Civil War when various communities organized to honor those who had died in prison camps and battles. It wasn't until the 1960's that the 4th Monday in May was established as the national holiday and the three day weekend was assured. By this time it had grown to not only pay attention to those who had died in military service, but also to thank those who were currently serving.
I've seen a number of postings on Facebook in the past couple of days that remind people that this is a holiday that should be taken seriously. One showed a young woman stretched out on the ground over the grave of a loved one; another was a poster that said something like "This is not National Barbecue Day."
Because it has become a three day event, and the beginning of the summer season when pools open, decks are cleaned up, tomatoes get planted - the weekend does offer plenty of time for fun and celebration. And I think that's fine.
Hopefully, most people can use this opportunity to also spend a little time in reflection on the meaning of the day. That will vary for all of us. For my aunt, it means going to the cemetary to put fresh flowers on my uncle's grave. He did serve in Europe in WWII and came home safely, living a long life of serving in other ways as a civilian. For my father in law and his sister, it will mean remembering their brother who went down on a ship in the Mediterranean. My dad will remember comrades who were lost in the Pacific. For many of us we will remember friends from school who died in the Viet Nam War, or the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. And we will think of all those who have given up time from their families, sacrificed safety and comfort, missed out on all the little ordinary things we take for granted to answer to the duty that calls them. And we offer our sincere and humble gratitude.
Today what I was also thinking about was how we choose to use the freedom and life that we've been given. I remember men and women who did not go into the military; their way of serving was different, based on their strong belief that war is something to be resisted with all the strength, creativity, and courage they could gather. I think of Franz Jagerstatter, Dorothy Day, and others for whom working for peace was their life's work, sometimes leading to their deaths. That is also a path of great sacrifice. For me, I give thanks for the witness of these brave people this day, too.
I don't know which path is "right". I'd like to believe strongly enough in the way of peace that I could say definitively that we should not have to have people in the military. But that doesn't feel realistic. So for now, I contemplate the lives of those who have sacrificed so much, and figure out what small part I might play in contributing to a world that will be better for my grandchildren and all our children.