Robert Cairns: Commemorate, don't celebrate, Memorial Day

·4 min read

May 28—I make a point of attending a Memorial Day service every year.

I have childhood memories of Memorial Day that include a festive parade, followed by a cookout, but those memories don't really include what's important to me now.

The important part is the somber ceremony that either precedes or follows the parade, depending upon what community one is in.

Memorial Day, to many, seems interchangeable with Veterans' Day, Armed Forces Day or Independence Day.

But it's not.

Memorial Day is the day when military veterans gather to remember brothers- and sisters-in-arms who died in service to our country, and for those of us who are not veterans to show our appreciation to those who, in Abraham Lincoln's words, gave "the last true measure of devotion."

It's not a time for the "look at me" types of ostentatious patriotism — dressing head to toe in red, white and blue, draped in a flag, chanting "USA! USA!" It's not a time for partisan politics.

If we take our cues from the veterans who lead the services, we understand it's a time to grieve loss, honoring the sacrifice of those who fell in the wars from the revolution that won our nation its independence in the 1700s, to the war to preserve the union in the 1800s, to the great world wars of the 1900s and the conflicts, large and small, between and after those conflagrations.

Memorial Day is marked with readings of the iconic poem, "In Flanders Fields," written in 1915 by a soldier-poet as he gazed upon a World War I cemetery. It's marked by speeches in which veterans mourn men and women who "never lived to comb gray hair."

In my youth, when there were still many World War II veterans among us, it was not unusual to see tears in the eyes or on the faces of veterans in attendance at Memorial Day observances.

They knew firsthand the loss of friends to war. More than 400,000 Americans died in that war, and the population was less than half what it is today. Death from war was known to many families and almost all citizens. It was real for those veterans.

That's where it became clear to me what Memorial Day is really about.

Today, far fewer among us have lost friends or loved ones to war. To be sure, there are veterans of the wars in Korea and Vietnam who know the loss of comrades, but not in the numbers of what has come to be known as "The Greatest Generation."

There are some who have seen death in Middle Eastern conflicts that continue today.

We should all appreciate the members of our veterans' organizations, most notably The American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, who make it an ongoing mission to renew each year the remembrance of people they never knew, people whose names may be on monuments in public squares and certainly are carved on gravestones, whether in some far-off military cemetery or here at home.

Memorial Day has its roots in what was known as "Decoration Day," when people would decorate the graves of the war dead. It's fitting that there's still an element of that today — flags are placed on the graves of deceased veterans in many communities, families visit cemeteries more than any other time of year.

It's fine to enjoy a long holiday weekend and to think of the last weekend in May as the start of summer. There's no shame in enjoying the outdoor recreation that this time of year brings. Those things are part of the fabric of American life, too.

But on Monday, please take some time to reflect on the sacrifice, the last true measure of devotion, of those who died wearing the uniform of our nation. If possible, take the time to attend a Memorial Day service and support the veterans who work to keep the memory of our war dead alive, lest we forget.

Lest we forget.

Robert Cairns is the managing editor of The Daily Star. He can be reached at or 607-441-7217.

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