On Memorial Day 2009, former President Barack Obama gave an eloquent eulogy for those who had died wearing American uniforms.
“If the fallen could speak to us, what would they say?,” he said. “Would they console us? Perhaps they might say that while they could not know they’d be called upon to storm a beach through a hail of gunfire, they were willing to give up everything for the defense of our freedom; that while they could not know they’d be called upon to jump into the mountains of Afghanistan and seek an elusive enemy, they were willing to sacrifice all for their country; that while they couldn’t possibly know they would be called to leave this world for another, they were willing to take that chance to save the lives of their brothers and sisters in arms.”
Officially sanctioned ceremonies for remembering the war dead go back at least as far as Homer. And every year, at the crossroads of spring and summer, Americans continue that honored — and essential — tradition of refusing to forget.
The genesis of our own Memorial Day is murky, with different places claiming to be the first to officially memorialize those who died in battle. One place to start is 150 years ago this month, when a military order came down to place flowers on both Union and Confederate graves at Arlington National Cemetery. That was the start of what was originally called “Decoration Day,” when families would go to cemeteries to clean the graves of their loved ones and plant flowers.
A few years ago, a reporter from this newspaper visited Long Island National Cemetery in Farmingdale, where many who fought and died in America’s wars are buried. He came upon Roberto Gonzalez, a Vietnam veteran and a caretaker of the cemetery, working alone in the aisles of white marble, washing and polishing headstones. Mr. Gonzalez said that, when cleaning, “I like to do it by myself. Do it right.”
Asked where he would be on Memorial Day, he answered, “Here.” The caretakers of national cemeteries don’t have long weekends, because by law the cemeteries can’t close for more than 48 hours at a stretch.
“People say, ‘Memorial Day, oh, a day off, great beach day, shopping,’ ” Mr. Gonzalez said. “But you know, most people don’t know why they got this day.”
He pointed to the grass at his feet. “This right here is why they got it.”
Memorial Day once struggled to keep its original meaning. But the day has recovered its essence because of the rising number of dead Americans who their families will honor this weekend for service in what seems like wars without end that began after 9/11 and continue through these long, bloody years.
We’re lucky here, for many reasons, and one is that the North Fork and Shelter Island haven’t forgotten what the day signifies.
Remember all who served, especially those who died serving their country. And remember their families, who carry on bravely without them.