The True Meaning Behind Memorial Day
By Justin Johnson, Retired Combat Medic, Kadiant Operations
Memorial Day is a solemn day of remembrance. Right now, America is as divided in its views of what this day is about as it was in its early history of this nation. Every year, TV commercials promote Memorial Day sales and families start prepping their BBQs to celebrate the kickoff of summer, while a portion of our society braces for the impact of mourning their fallen loved ones. To those individuals impacted by the loss of a loved one from wars overseas, or to those Veterans fighting the war at home against the alarmingly high rate of Veteran suicide, 1 carrying the burden of having to educate peers adds to the pain, distracts from healing, and impedes the honoring of those lost.
The Origins of Memorial Day
Cultures have had customs of remembering their fallen since before written history. America’s history with Memorial Day is primarily founded to honor our fallen, but also to heal our nation, re-unite a torn society, and create a narrative to explain the tragic loss. The origins of Memorial Day in our history date back to the Civil War:
Black South Carolinians and their white Northern abolitionist allies were primarily responsible for the founding of Decoration Day. In Charleston, South Carolina, where the war had begun, the first collective ceremony involving a parade and the decoration of the graves of the dead with spring flowers, took place on May 1st, 1865. In richly symbolic parades and other ceremonies they announced their rebirth…The freedpeople of Charleston had converted Confederate ruin into their own festival of freedom.2
Memorial Day provided spiritual healing and solidified the narrative of why the Civil War was fought, and what was gained from it. This day was founded by Black Americans for some of these reasons, but the struggle to own the meaning of Memorial Day was felt by these Americans right from the beginning.3
From this initial Memorial Day in Charleston championed by Black Americans and Union supporters, the losses were justified, and the communities healed with the narrative that their fallen were the martyrs who helped end slavery. White Charlestonians suppressed the narrative and history of this first event in favor of their own confederate sympathetic versions as they began their own Memorial Day ceremonies to set their own narrative and validate their losses in the Civil War. This was born out of their own defeat and despair left from the war, and a rewriting of history as they silenced the idea that they were in the war against reconstruction and not to protect slavery. The confusion of where this day has come from and what it means in our history has therefore been perpetuated from its inception of the practice.
One Nation, Divided
When society fails to acknowledge the reason Memorial Day is important for our nation, for the healing and reunion of division between our fellow humans caused by conflict, we do a disservice to our communities and those affected by the tragic loss of loved ones. Not only do those affected have to be told that their day of mourning is a holiday or celebration, we perpetuate the same silencing of our true history as a nation by not taking the time to learn our own history. We have all suffered loss of some sort that may not be the direct casualty of war. Take some time this Memorial Day to offer those affected by loss some empathy when they need to mourn. Then reflect on the history of where this remembrance began so that we may all not reproduce the past and can instead mourn and unify as Memorial Day is intended.
The War at Home
Veteran suicide is at an all-time high as the most challenging war for them is often back at home. Suffering tragic loss and trauma for a cause that is not as defined as the Civil War, as well as coming home and being expected to assimilate rapidly back into a culture that does not invest in the community healing process that Memorial Day once meant, leaves Veterans to suffer silently. As a nation, we are historically so quick to validate war for some noble or righteous reason. We send our loved ones away to places where the effects are not tangible to our population, and yet there is no community involvement in reconciling the soul. We fail to meaningfully validate the loss and trauma through ceremony and make it impossible for these communities to assimilate back together again. What we are left with is members of our population that cannot integrate back into society, and no common narrative with which our nation can reconcile and validate the loss. We will repeat history and fail to reach communal reconciliation without educating ourselves on our nation’s history with war trauma and the origins of our Memorial Day.
Honoring, Celebrating, and Remembering
Celebrating life is a very necessary part of healing, so festivities and celebration can occur while still being respectful to the fundamental aspects of Memorial Day. We can honor our fallen while also being empathic to those suffering through loss. Remember in your celebrations that this Memorial Weekend and Memorial Day are about more than just time off and the beginning to summer. In this time when people are honoring their lost, be considerate that this is not a holiday or celebration for them and that speaking of this day in such a way can be insensitive. Take some time this year to look into our history and lend an ear to someone who needs support so that we can help create the healing narrative this nation needs to become one community again.
2. Blight DW. In: Race and Reunion: the Civil War in American Memory. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press; 2003:65-67.
3. Blight DW. In: Race and Reunion: the Civil War in American Memory. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press; 2003:70.