Today is May 30, 2016—99 years to the day after this postcard was presented. That Memorial Day, we were in the throes of yet another war, The Great War, what we now know as World War I (1914-1918). Imagine the people of our nation setting aside a day to remember those who had given their lives in previous wars while being worried sick about their loved ones overseas fighting what seemed a more horrific war… not being able to get news as quickly as we do today, not knowing the war would carry on another full year and a half. This war was a major turning point in history. Men coming back from this war experienced a change in class division. Shattered were the societal rankings of First, Second, and Third Class. An era had abruptly come to a halt because of the war. This war also saw the advent of taking the battle into the air, an additional battlefront, and the use of chemical warfare.
Yet still, in 1917, Memorial Day was a must. There were, at the time, many living veterans from the American Civil War and the war in the Philippines. Combined, those two conflicts saw a loss of over 2% of the entire U.S. population with roughly 630,000 men dying from wounds and disease, all while fighting for their homeland.
Decoration Day was the name given the first memorials for fallen soldiers, both in the north and the south after the Civil War. There is some dispute as to who truly started the ritual, but the fact remains that just three years later, similar activities, started mostly (and indisputably) by ladies and ladies’ organizations like the United Daughters of the Confederacy, were taking place all over the country. On May 5, 1868, a proclamation was called for “Decoration Day” to be observed annually and nationwide. Weeks later, on May 30 of the same year, it was observed for the first time by all on the same day. The story goes the date was chosen because it was not the anniversary of any particular battle. It’s also said May 30 was selected because it was the optimal date for flowers to be in bloom.
Notice nowhere did it say Decoration Day meant going to the beach or having a cookout or party. It was a day to decorate the graves of those who died defending our homeland (be it the American colonies seeking freedom, the American Southland seeking freedom, or the American soldiers in any conflict seeking to preserve the union of states and/or its united freedom.) I have a theory as to why this changed. Why we now feel more comfortable treating this day as a day off from school or work… a day for sales at retailers and a day for crowding local beaches and parks. My theory is simple. We are now too UNCOMFORTABLE talking about death.
Do you agree? Back in the Victorian Era and beyond, death was treated with reverence and a level of intimacy that we simply cannot fathom. People typically died at home and the dead were cared for by loved ones, mourned, and buried locally. The woman of the house bathed and dressed the deceased herself and laid them out in the parlor for the mourning period. Loved ones sat up with the dead for a set period of time in case they “awoke” (hence the term “wake”) just before the funeral. This made sense because of the very real fear of being buried alive (they still had no understanding of consciousness or comas). Everyone in the house would don black mourning attire, the mirrors would be shrouded with black material, clocks stopped at the time of death, wreaths hung on the doors, shutters shut, food served was minimal and bland. There were rituals to follow and people adhered to them. Mourners wore black clothing for extended periods of time out of RESPECT for the deceased and to show the outside world they were hurting. Can you imagine? How many people are there at any given moment at your local grocery store who would appreciate you knowing they were sad? Think you might treat them a little more gently? My guess is plenty and yes, of course.
Back then people embraced death as the natural part of life that it is. They openly prepared for it and respectfully demonstrated their feelings. Interestingly, on the other hand, they NEVER talked about sex. Today, we openly talk about sex, show our belly buttons to strangers, and have no concept of death. I venture to guess very few of us have ever seen a dead body (not that we want to). Being so separated from this natural progression of life has caused us more harm than good. Death is now kind of a mystery… Your friend is here one minute and gone the next. Yes, some still have open caskets and visitations for closure. But there’s no intimacy. No coming to terms with the passing. We quickly move through it, and then pretend it doesn’t bother us. We go right back to work. We jump right back into normal everyday life and try to keep it all together and you can’t. It doesn’t work that way. The Victorians knew this better than most.
The American Civil War ushered in a new problem. So many families lost loved ones away from home… with thousands not even able to be identified, so loved ones could be notified by letter. Imagine. Your son, your brother, your husband, neighbor or friend goes off to battle and is never heard from again. How do you properly mourn him? There’s no closure. And for a culture steeped in religious principles, that was even more painful. These men did not die a “good death”, at home surrounded by loved ones, able to make a dying wish or final statement. They were unable to be blessed by the clergy before being placed into the earth for a final rest before judgment day. This wracked the hearts and minds of many during the American Civil War. It is said that at one period in late 1864, there were an estimated 80,000 women in black in the state of Alabama alone. So much mourning. We can’t wrap our modern heads around that.
So, while we are planning our picnics and slathering on sunscreen for a day on the boat, we need to take a moment to consider the true meaning behind the moniker. It’s Memorial Day. A day to remember those who gave their lives so that we could live the way we do—FREE to take a six pack of Coke to the party. The further we get from a war where there was great loss of life, the softer we get. Just in our era, we had an outpouring of patriotism following the attacks on September 11, 2001. But where is that sentiment today, just 15 years later? We’re getting soft again.
Please, be sure at some point on this day to stop and really take in the day’s meaning. Share it with your spouse and your children. Make sure you at least take a minute to give thanks and honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Remember the saying, “All gave some, some gave all.”
That is truly something to think about, at least one day a year.