Wayne County Wanderings: Remembering Our Honored Dead

Each of us has memories that make us cringe … recollections of boorish behavior we wish we could erase from history.

Most of these hearken back to our teenage years, those ridiculous days when we thought we knew everything and the adults knew absolutely nothing.

For me, one of the worst dates back to the late 1970s or early '80s, not long after my beloved Nana had passed away.

It was Memorial Day and my parents were doing their best to herd their three rambunctious sons into the car for our annual trip to the cemetery. Well, perhaps more accurately I should say: Two rambunctious sons and one surly teenager.

That would be me.

I can't remember exactly what I was doing at the time (what on earth was so important that I didn't want to go?) but, well, I really didn't want to go.

And, I was giving them a very tough time.

What I do vividly recall, though, is staring hard at the ground, hands jammed deep in my pants pockets, while my poor Dad tried to reason with me.

“Its important that we do this,” he said quietly while everyone else sat patiently in the car. “Especially for your Mom. Someday you'll understand.”

Yep, like many teens before me and many after, I was being a complete jackass. I did finally relent and get into the car, but I'd made a fool of myself in the process because I just didn't understand the true meaning of Memorial Day.

I wish I'd known then what I know now...

A Bit of History

Memorial Day traces its origin to the years following the Civil War.

Initially, it was a very localized affair … a day of quiet remembrance set aside to honor the memories of those who'd died fighting both for the Union and the Confederacy.

Surviving family members would head out to their local cemetery for a brief ceremony that featured prayers, hymns and flowers to be placed on graves.

Recent research suggests that “Decoration Day,” as it was first called, began in the deep south and quickly spread to the north.

Three years after the Civil War ended Decoration Day, was established as a time for the nation to tend the graves of our honored dead.

General John Logan declared that Decoration Day would be observed each year on May 30.

The first formal event was held at Arlington National Cemetery.

Ceremonies centered around the Arlington mansion once the home of Robert E. Lee. The veranda was draped all in black as a sign of mourning.

Several famous folks, including Gen. & Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant, presided over the event.

Following a number of heartfelt speeches, boys and girls from the Soldiers and Sailors Orphan Home, along with members of the GAR, processed through the cemetery. Hymns were sung and prayers said while flowers were laid on the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers.

“Decoration Day” caught on quickly, perhaps due to its obvious role in helping the nation heal … at least psychologically … from its terrible wounds.

Northern states wasted no time in adopting the holiday. By 1868, memorial events were held in 183 cemeteries across 27 states. The following year, that number had grown to 336.

In 1871, Michigan made "Decoration Day" an official state holiday. And, by 1890, every northern state had followed suit.

A city in Pennsylvania has the distinction of hosting one of the longest-running Decoration Day ceremonies in the nation.

Doylestown, located in Bucks County, has held annual Memorial Day parades since 1868. City elders believe this to be the oldest continuously-running parade in the US.

Strangely, it wasn't until 1971 that Memorial Day became an officially recognized federal holiday.

Local Ties

My best friend (who was also my first love, but that's a story for another time!) shocked us all not too long after high school graduation by announcing her intention to enter the armed services.

Those of us who knew her best voiced our whole-hearted support publicly, but whispered privately that she'd never follow through.

After all, she was brilliant, but also just a little bit flighty. I mean, we're talking about someone who could argue with a Jesuit professor one minute, then head off to a Michael Jackson concert the next.

To her undying credit, though, she never wavered in her determination.

Following a stellar collegiate career at the University of Scranton and Dickinson Law School, she was commissioned an officer in the US Navy.

While she never served in combat, she did distinguish herself as a prosecutor in the JAG Corps, eventually becoming a military justice.

She now works as a civilian for the Department of Defense. And so, as I was preparing to write this week's column, I thought I'd ask her to share a few words about Memorial Day...

“I am honored to have served our country, protected our citizens and allies, and stood alongside wonderful men and women who would give up their lives to protect our freedom and way of life.

“I smile when I think of those I knew who were killed doing just that because they lived their lives to the fullest. They died doing a job which was their passion.

“Being a veteran means embracing service and indoctrination into a disciplined group of people who put God, country, and family before themselves.

“Being a service member gave me confidence, pride, direction, and an understanding that I can make a difference. It also gave me a life-long membership in a group of outstanding people who believe in love, peace, and honor.

“It’s important not just to me but to our country to honor those who have sacrificed their lives and reflect on the selfless contribution they have made to our country.

“Without them, we would not have the freedoms we are so fortunate to have. I am humbled by their devotion.”

She said it far better than I ever could.

Thank You

Memorial Day is set aside each year to remember those who've made the ultimate sacrifice in defense of our country.

We salute all of our service men and women on Veterans Day; but, Memorial Day is solely for our honored dead.

This weekend, while you're enjoying family, friends, cookouts and parades, please take a quiet moment to remember them… maybe even send up a little prayer of thanks.

After all, without them, this country as we know it wouldn't be here.