Memorial Day is the day when we remember those who have died in military service to our country. It was originally called Decoration Day because it was the tradition to decorate the graves of those who died in the Civil War. After World War I, it was expanded to include those who had died in any war or military action. Memorial Day is now observed on the last Monday of May.
I believe wars are sometimes necessary to preserve freedom, or certainly to beat back an invading enemy. The right of personal or national self-defense when attacked is an inherent right. War may be forced upon a nation, and that nation can either defend itself or surrender. What else could we do as a nation after Japan attacked us at Pearl Harbor, or Germany was wreaking havoc in Europe?
I also believe every American owes a huge debt to every man and woman who died while serving this country. There are privileges we enjoy each and every day that were gained or preserved by those who paid the ultimate price in the service of and for our country.
There is a song called, “American Soldier.” The song tells of a soldier who is called to duty and he says, “I will always do my duty no matter what the price. I’ve counted up the cost, I know the sacrifice. Oh, and I don’t want to die for you, but if dyin’s asked of me I’ll bear the cross with honor, cause freedom isn’t free.”
And “freedom isn’t free.” Every freedom we enjoy as Americans has been purchased and preserved by the blood and sacrifices of so many who have answered their nation’s call. Every headstone in every National Cemetery tells a story about sacrifice.
We call it “Memorial Day,” because it is important to remember. Memory is important. Some of our memories are happy, and we can recall wonderful experiences. Some of our memories are sad, and we may weep as we remember them. But memory is very practical. If you couldn’t remember that a red light means “stop,” or you weren’t able to remember what day it is, or your anniversary or your spouse’s birthday – you’d be in big trouble.
God has given us the gift of memory. In a moment you can be a child again or skipping rocks across a pond or walking around where you grew up. You can fall in love, get married, and have children all over again. You can do all this through the memories fixed in your mind. We are saddened to see people struggle with memory loss. It is like losing a treasure that has been gained over time.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, (essayist, poet and philosopher), and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, (Midnight Ride of Paul Revere), both were literary giants of their day and had a tremendous influence upon American literature in the 1800s, and they were actually friends. In 1867, Emerson’s health began to decline. By 1871 or 1872 he started experiencing memory problems. Emerson and Longfellow died in the same year, 1882, within a month of each other. I have read that, although weak and failing, Emerson summoned the energy to attend Longfellow’s funeral, and that he said to his daughter, Ellen, “I cannot recall the name of our friend, but he was a good man.”
It is sad when memory fails us. We tie a string around our finger and do different things to help us remember. Calendars are printed to help us remember. Christmas is marked to help us remember the birth of Christ. Easter is marked to help us remember His Resurrection.
Memorial Day grew out of the human need to remember where we have been. Only a clear understanding of the past can help us understand where we are headed. The cherished memories of a nation, a town, a church, or a family provide the values and dreams that one generation passes on to the next. Forgetting means we lose touch with the past.
This was on President Lincoln’s mind on November 19, 1863, as he made his way to the Pennsylvania battlefield. He truly feared he might be the last president of the United States. The nation was on the brink of self-destruction. The ceremony that afternoon would dedicate the site of the cemetery for the approximately 8,000 soldiers killed (somewhere between 46,000 and 51,000 casualties) at Gettysburg in the 3-day battle the previous year. Lincoln’s remarks helped provide the seeds for what would become Memorial Day. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was delivered at the height of a civil war when its outcome was far from clear.
In the Gettysburg address delivered at the Gettysburg battlefield in November 1863, he stated, “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain…”
Lincoln had every reason to doubt as to whether the nation would be able in 1863 to bring this “great task” to a successful conclusion. The outcome would ultimately determine whether the dead had indeed “died in vain.”
A tremendous price has been paid by many who gave their lives that we might enjoy the privileges that we have. We do not appreciate the sense of uncertainty that hung over the outcome of the Civil War when Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg. Too many Americans have become disconnected from our nation’s history, and we do not appreciate as a nation the sacrifices of our nation’s forefathers.
President Woodrow Wilson said, “A nation which does not remember what it was yesterday will not know what it is today, nor what it is trying to do.”
Karl Marx, the father of Communism said, “Take away the heritage of a people, and they are easily persuaded.” Think about that for a minute!
For many, Memorial Day has become just another Monday holiday. It marks the beginning of summer. It is normally the weekend of the Indy 500. School is usually out. The pools are normally open. It provides the first real chance for picnics, BBQ’s, and maybe an outing to the lake.
But Memorial Day is more than just a three-day weekend. We observe a Memorial Day so we do not forget! The next generation must be taught to remember the lives, the legacies, and the lessons of those upon whose shoulders we stand. We remember the men and women in uniform who paid for our freedom with their blood. They paid the ultimate sacrifice for our nation. Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
As a military chaplain, now retired, I have been a part of many military funerals and memorial services. Some of these services have been in military chapels. Many have been in cemeteries where military honors were rendered. Many of the memorial services have been in deployed locations during wartime, some on the flight line, many in the back of the planes returning the fallen back to the United States. Often at the end of my remarks, or prayer, certainly at the playing of taps, I would salute the flag of the United States draped on the casket, thinking about my fallen comrade. I still think about them. I still remember them.
— Rev. Ken Thornton is pastor of First Baptist Church at Pine Bluff. Thornton served in the United States Air Force as a Reserve and an Active service member, retiring at the rank of lieutenant colonel. He is a veteran of 10 duty station assignments and deployed three times in support of operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, and in support of Overseas Contingency Operations.