We do lots of activities over Memorial Day weekend—picnics and barbecues, tent sales and, not to forget the big event itself, the Indianapolis 500.
Don't blame the shrug of modern life. When Memorial Day began, right after the Civil War, as Decoration Day, it was a time for families to visit the graves of their knighted Union dead, outings immediately re-purposed by amorous young folk.
"Decoration Day was also a day of courtship for the young people," notes holiday scholar Jack Santino, pointing out how 19th century couples would wander off to the more remote spots of woodsy cemeteries.
Given these practical uses of the holiday, we can't be blamed for wondering, as we dip our heads and reflect on the sacrifice of soldiers who gave their lives for the country, for whose benefit do we do this?
The noble dead? To please those gazing down at us from heaven?
Pretty to think so. I would suggest, however, that we remember those who yielded their lives, not as a favor to them, but for ourselves. Dignity demands it. Our nation did not form spontaneously, like a mountain range, but was wrested by intention and force from Mother Britain. Nor did it survive for 240 years without the exercise of military power--often in folly, for certain but sometimes crucially, to make sure the Wehrmacht didn't come rolling down Michigan Avenue....
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