Memorial Day -- What My Family Learned at Arlington National Cemetery
“All these people died for our country?”
That’s what my nine-year-old quietly asked when we began to walk through the rolling terrain at Arlington National Cemetery on a brisk fall day last year.
We had just spent three jam-packed days in Washington, D.C., making our way through as much of the historical buildings and museums as we could in the limited amount of time we had. It was the first trip to our nation’s capital for our two children and it was incredible to view the tangible parts of our American history through their young eyes.
But on that chilly morning, as we made a last-minute stop at that somber and honored place before we headed to the airport, the gravity of all the uniformly placed white marble headstones took our children by surprise as we put a final mark on a whirlwind history tour by seeing just what our freedom has cost this nation.
As our family made our way to the top of the hill where the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier rests, I looked across the poignant and vast landscape of the cemetery and glimpsed the dates that mark each headstone. Laid before me were more than 400,000 memorials to souls who fought for this nation over hundreds of years. The sight took my breath away.
Memorial Day began as a response to the carnage of the Civil War. After the Civil War ended in the spring of 1865, Americans began holding springtime tributes by reciting prayers and decorating with flowers the graves of countless fallen soldiers. It was a way to remember those who had given, as Abraham Lincoln beautifully said, “the last full measure of devotion” to defend their nation.
Three years later, on May 5, 1868, General John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic issued an order to set aside a unique day for Americans to place flowers on the graves of war heroes, and on May 30 of that same year, the first Decoration Day was held at Arlington Cemetery. President Ulysses S. Grant presided over the first ceremony. Some 5,000 people attended, and James A. Garfield — a Civil War general, a Republican congressman from Ohio and future president — spoke. Following his nearly two-hour speech, schoolchildren from a local orphanage led war veterans, many who were still scarred from battle, to place flowers on all the gravesites of the soldiers, both Union and Confederate, as a sign of unity.
After World War I, Memorial Day was amended to include all men and women from our armed forces who gave their lives serving our nation. The name "Memorial Day," which was first used in 1882, became more common than "Decoration Day" after World War II, but was not declared the official name by federal law until 1967. In 1971, Memorial Day became officially a federal holiday.
This year’s observations carry an unusual layer of complexities as the nation navigates a pandemic that is canceling many traditional Memorial Day parades and weekend plans. Even Arlington National Cemetery is not immune to COVID-19, as the national resting place is closed to the public and the epicenter of the nation’s official Memorial Day observance is forced to conduct commemorative activities virtually. But that doesn’t mean the day is any less important. On the contrary, we should make all the more effort to remember the American men and women this day was designated to honor.
Last fall, when our family entered the sacred place of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, we found a space amongst the others gathered to witness the iconic changing of the guard. Since April 6, 1948, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier has been guarded by a Tomb Sentinel 24 hours a day, 365 days a year with no exception. The precision and reverence during the ceremonial change were stunning, and even the most restless of children in the crowd watching the meticulous routine paid attention. I noticed a gentleman standing next to me had his hand on his heart the entire time. He let out a deep sigh of emotion when the final salute was given, and I wondered what memories and feelings were stirring his heart.
Memorial Day may be one day set aside for our nation to honor and mourn the men and women who died serving our blessed country, but that day last fall at Arlington National Cemetery was a tangible way for my children to see that paying respects should be an enduring tribute to those who made the ultimate sacrifice so we can live in the land of the free and the home of the brave.
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I attempted to post a message on another website, for Memorial Day. It consisted of:
"Memorial Day 2020: Man is but a foot servant. God is our Master and our Judge."
There was a photo of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
It was rejected as "offensive". The rejection notice read:
"Your comment on Baltimore Mayor Bashes Trump's Memorial Day Visit to Fort McHenry, White House Responds has been rejected as we found similar content to be offensive to other community members. "
Thank-you Megan for your heartfelt words. I hope your children never forget what they experienced.
Thank you for your kind words, Victoria. It's a moment we will still talk about together and will continue to remember. God Bless!
Thank you, Megan, for this heartfelt article in remembrance of those who served. I love the way you express yourself in your writing. You are talented and gifted and I appreciate your willingness to share with all of us. God bless and have a wonderful day.
Thank you so much for the sweet compliment, Melinda. It was an honor to put into words our time at Arlington. -Megan