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Lange: Decoration Day

05/28/12 7:55AM By Willem Lange
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(Host) It's Memorial Day, which many Americans celebrate as a three-day weekend, while others commemorate the sacrifices that gave it its name. Commentator Willem Lange is a writer and storyteller who thinks that too many of us may be forgetting what this day encourages us to remember.

(Lange) Decoration Day, we called it back in the 1930s. On the 30th of May, whatever day of the week it was, my grandfather closed his pharmacy, and we all piled into his Chevy to visit our ancestors' graves and leave flowers on them. Stolid old Germans they were, whose monument bore the legend, Durch Kreuz zur Krone - "Through the Cross to the Crown." Suffering was more popular in those days as a qualification for Heaven.

There's no agreement when and how Memorial Day began; everybody wants to claim it - rather like the hundreds of old inns advertising that George Washington slept there. Spring picnics in family graveyards were a tradition in the South before the Civil War.

Probably the first memorial was performed by a group of freed slaves who landscaped a mass burial site of Union soldiers in Charleston, South Carolina, where the war had begun. They built an enclosure, and on May 1, 1865, laid flowers on the graves to commemorate the sacrifices.

During the war, Southern women decorated the graves of Confederate dead. After Appomatox, the Lost Cause Movement and the Ladies' Memorial Association established Jefferson Davis' birthday, June 3, as the Confederate Memorial Day. By 1900 its emphasis had shifted from honoring the dead to glorifying the Confederate cause.

Meanwhile, General John Logan, Commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, proclaimed a national Decoration Day for May 30 - not a date of any Civil War Battle. And so it remained, more or less; there were still other dates celebrated in the South, and for decades disagreement about the proper day for it - even though the original one was picked out of the air.

In 1968 Congress passed the Uniform Holidays Bill, which designated the last Monday in May Memorial Day. This made it part of a three-day weekend - to most Americans a holiday, rather than a day of solemn remembrance, which understandably upsets the members of veterans' organizations, who sponsor parades and cemetery services with appropriate salutes.

Those of us who remember the rationing and air raids of our youth, and lost friends or family members in what we call "The War," may regret that less attention is paid now to the sacrifices of our service-people. We pause to honor them today. There was no question of the importance of their cause. But I also pray that our nation, besides honoring its dead, will seek greater clarity of purpose before sending more thousands of our young people to fight and die for reasons less compelling. We owe that to them - and to our honored dead - as well.

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