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Fields where they lay

Let’s remember the heroes lost on Memorial Day

Memorial Day later this month coincides with two national observances: National Beef Burger Day and National Hamburger Day. But it shouldn’t.

Anyone who thinks Memorial Day is about hot dogs on the grill or the first summer weekend at the Shore is missing the point. Yet that is not a surprise.

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When did a day reserved for America’s war dead become about cookouts and a three-day weekend of pleasure?

That’s not easy to pin down, but for many of us, the message of Memorial Day has surely been lost. According to The Federalist website, a proclamation was issued more than 150 years ago during the Civil War by a general who called the holiday “an occasion to honor those who died in the conflict.”

“The 30th day of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country …” the proclamation noted.

But it didn’t stay that way. Marine Jennie Haskamp has attended more than 75 Memorial Day services since 9/11, and once wrote this in The Washington Post, according to The Federalist: “Not enough people pause. Not enough people remember.”

When did the phrase Happy Memorial Day become an oxymoron? While no one says we should mark the occasion with sadness, treating it like Labor Day, for instance, misses the point. So does confusing it with Veterans Day: Memorial Day is reserved for honoring America’s war dead, while the November holiday honors all those who served.

According to history.com, Memorial Day was born out of necessity. After the Civil War, the country was faced with burying and honoring the more than half a million Americans who died in that conflict. So a Memorial Day observance was held on May 30, 1868 at Arlington National Cemetery, the resting place of both Union and Confederate soldiers.

But it wasn’t the first: In the late 1990s, historians learned of a Memorial Day commemoration organized by a group of slaves who were freed less than a month after the Confederacy surrendered in 1865.

New York was the first state to officially recognize Memorial Day in 1873, according to the website us.memorialday.org. It was recognized by all northern states by 1890 and by the South after World War I. Congress elevated the last Monday in May to a national holiday in every state in 1971.

As President Harry Truman put it, ‘Our debt to the heroic men and valiant women in the service of our country can never be repaid. They have earned our undying gratitude. America will never forget their sacrifices.”

But if you happen to forget them on Memorial Day, here are ways to remember: Join a parade or other celebration. Tell stories of those you know who gave their lives. Visit local gravesites or memorials.

And you might want to wear a poppy. The robust plant referred to in the poem In Flanders Field miraculously grew in French fields ravaged by the first world war and went on to become a symbol of why we acknowledge Memorial Day.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.


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