Many Americans will gather in cemeteries across the land today to remember the men and women who died serving in the American military. Solemn ceremonies will be conducted and prayers of gratitude and grief will be offered. Flags adorn graves and are posted along roadways honoring the memory of those who died in the service of our nation.
The origin of Memorial Day is not clear. There are many stories about its beginning and dozens of towns claim to be the birthplace of this special observance. There is considerable evidence that it might have grown out of the organized efforts of women's groups in the South to decorate the graves of Confederate soldiers. It is likely that these separate gatherings of people to honor the war dead in the 1860's tapped into the general human need to honor our dead.
The growing movement culminated in 1868 when Gen. John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, gave an official proclamation designating May 30 as Memorial Day. Flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery on its first observation on May 30, 1868.
The first state to officially recognize the holiday was New York in 1873. By 1890 it was recognized by all of the northern states. The South refused to acknowledge the day, honoring their dead on separate days until after World War I. Memorial Day is now celebrated in almost every state on the last Monday in May.
Since the late 50's on the Thursday before Memorial Day, the soldiers of the 3rd U.S. Infantry place small American flags at each of the more than 260,000 gravestones at Arlington National Cemetery. They then patrol 24 hours a day during the weekend to ensure that each flag remains standing. In 1951, the Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts of St. Louis began placing flags on the 150,000 graves at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery as an annual Good Turn. Similar occurrences are commonplace today all over the country.
It is not important who was the very first to have such an observance. It is important to recognize that Memorial Day is not about division. It is about reconciliation; it is about coming together to honor those who gave their all for the freedoms that we enjoy--and often take for granted.
And it is a good time to pray for the day when there will be no more war. That all nations will "trade in their swords for shovels, their spears for rakes and hoes. Nations will quit fighting each other; quit learning how to kill one another" (Micah 4:4, The Message). Let it be, Lord. Let it be!
[Taken with permission from "Monday Morning in North Georgia," May 31, 2010. North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church.]