MEMORIAL DAY, A TIME FOR HEALING
Memorial Day, perhaps more than any other holiday, was born of human necessity. Deep inside all of us lies a fundamental desire to make sense of life and our place in it and the world. What we have been given, what we will do with it and what we will pass to the next generation is all part of an unfolding history, a continuum that links one soul to another.
Abraham Lincoln pondered these thoughts in the late fall of 1863. His darkest fear was that he might well be the last president of the United States, a nation embroiled in the self-destruction of what he described as "a great civil war..testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure." He began his remarks with those words as he stood on the battlefield near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on November 19th of that year.
The minuteís speech that became known as Lincolnís Gettysburg Address turned into what might be called the first observance of Memorial Day. Lincolnís purpose that day was to dedicate a portion of the battlefield as a cemetery for the thousands of men, both living and dead, who consecrated that soil in the sacrifice of battle. Said Abraham Lincoln: "That from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause which they gave the last full measure of devotion...that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom..."
The next year, a pleasant Sunday in October of 1864 found a teenage girl, Emma Hunter, gathering flowers in a Boalsburg, Pennsylvania cemetery to place on the grave of her father. He was a surgeon who had died in service to the Union Army in that great Civil War. Nearby, Mrs. Elizabeth Meyer was strewing flowers upon the grave of her son Amos, a private who had fallen on the last day of the battle of Gettysburg. Emma respectfully took a few of her flowers and put them on the grave of Amos. Mrs. Meyer, in turn, laid some of her freshly cut blooms on the grave of Dr. Hunter. Both women felt a lightening of their burdens by this act of honoring each otherís loss, and agreed to meet again the next year. This time they agreed they would also visit the graves of those who had no one left to honor them.
Both Emma Hunter and Elizabeth Meyer returned to the cemetery in Boalsburg on the day they had agreed, Independence Day, July 4, 1865. This time, though, they found themselves joined by nearly all the residents of the town. Dr. George Hall, a clergyman, offered a sermon, and the community joined in decorating every grave in the cemetery with flowers and flags. The custom became an annual event at Boalsburg, and it wasnít long before neighboring communities established their own "Decoration Day" each spring.
About that same time in 1865, a druggist in Waterloo, New York, Henry C. Welles, began promoting the idea of decorating the graves of Civil War veterans. He gained the support of the Seneca County Clerk, General John B. Murray, and they formed a committee to make wreaths, crosses and bouquets for each veteranís grave. On May 5, 1866, war veterans marching to martial music led processions to each of three cemeteries, where the graves were decorated and speeches were made by General Murray and local clergymen. The village itself was also decorated with flags at half-mast, evergreen boughs and mourning black streamers.
Also, as the Civil War was coming to a close in the spring of 1865, Womenís Auxiliaries of the North and South moved from providing relief to the families and soldiers on their own sides to joining in efforts to preserve and decorate the graves of both sides. A woman of French extraction and leader of the Virginia womenís movement, Cassandra Oliver Moncure, took responsibility of coordinating the activities of several groups into a combined ceremony on May 30. It is said that she picked that day because it corresponded to the Day of Ashes in France, a solemn day that commemorates the return of the remains of Napoleon Bon...
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