Memorial Day – or Holiday Weekend?
After the American Civil War, many communities set aside a special day to honor those who had died in that war. In 1868, Gen. John A. Logan, commander-in-chief of the Union veterans’ organization “The Grand Army of the Republic,” designated May 30 as Decoration Day, for the purpose of decorating the graves of Civil War veterans. The first state officially to recognize the holiday was New York in 1873. By 1890 it was recognized by all of the northern states. The South at first refused to acknowledge the day, honoring Confederate dead on other days until after World War I (when the holiday became the day to remember all American war dead). The alternative name Memorial Day, first used in 1882, became common after World War II and became the holiday’s official name in 1967. The unfortunate “Uniform Holidays Bill” of 1968 then moved Memorial Day to the last Monday in May, beginning in1971. In a Memorial Day address in 2002, the VFW observed: "Changing the date merely to create three-day weekends has undermined the very meaning of the day. No doubt, this has contributed greatly to the general public's nonchalant observance of Memorial Day."
So we are left with the question: Memorial Day – or Holiday Weekend? Much as the banal concept of the weekend has helped eviscerate Sunday, as “the Lord’s Day,” I suspect the holiday weekend has likewise diminished the social and civic significance of so many American holidays – an impoverishment to our common cultural life, no doubt, but one that is likely here to stay.
That being said, it may still be worth the effort to remember what Memorial Day was supposed to be about. During the Second World War, at the Sacred Heart altar in the south aisle of St. Paul the Apostle Church, there was an easel with the names of all parishioners serving in the Armed Forces and also a plaque with the names of all Paulist priests serving as military chaplains. After the war, a Commemorative Tablet, with the names of those parishioners who had given their lives for their country in that war, was placed on the west wall. After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack, the Sacred Heart altar again served as a site to honor the memory of those who had died as a result of that terrible event. A more permanent memorial was designed in 2005, now located to the east of the altar, dedicated to the memory of all who worshipped in this church or who lived or worked in our neighborhood and who lost their lives on that tragic, never-to-be-forgotten day.
In his De Cura Pro Mortuis, (On the Care for the Dead), St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) wrote: “Remembrance and prayers for the dead are signs of true affection when they are offered for the departed ones by the faithful most dear to them. There can be no doubt that these prayers help after life those who while alive merited them. Should some emergency prevent the bodies of the dead from being buried at all, should lack of facilities hinder them from resting in a holy place, prayers for the souls of these dead should not be neglected. The Church has taken upon herself, as an obligation, prayers for the dead. … The care bestowed upon the burial of the body … is merely an act of humanity regulated by affection for ‘no man hates his own flesh.’ …If these offices are paid to the dead, even by those who do not believe in the resurrection of the body, how much more should they be paid by those who do believe in the resurrection on the last day. Thus these duties toward a body which, although dead, is destined to rise again, are in a way a testimony of faith in that belief.”