John Phipps: Making a Meaningful Memorial Day

Depending on the source, either last year or 2015 was the tipping point from funerals to cremations. Regardless, typical Memorial Day scenes in cemeteries will become less relevant to many. In fact, funerals have become a whole ‘nother thing as well. The pandemic just speeded up the process. With less than half of Americans affiliated with any church, funeral services, like weddings, have drifted toward individualized ceremonies, rather than ritualized ceremonies. Add in the new shape of family trees and the wider dispersal of families, family duties to gather become vaguer and easily ignored.  This is occurring as the number of deaths in our society soon will overtake births, which when you think about it will make traditional funerals and memorial services even more strained.

For this particular holiday, other influences add to the burden of keeping it meaningful. We are decimating the role and profession of historian, even as we commit the same social and political mistakes that history teaches. The last “good war” – WWII – is just about gone from living memory. The decision to make it a movable date to suit economic concerns was also a bad idea in my opinion. Fixed dates attach both meaning and permanence to ceremonies, rather than treating them like a business interruption. If you think December 25 is set in stone, don’t be surprised when the stone cutters arrive. It has been our unfortunate neglect of understanding our place in time and events that has allowed Memorial Day to change into something much less than it could be. While the path ahead could see a revival of meaningful observances, even better would be to see new and meaningful additions to that way we mark this day.

The result is Memorial Day will increasingly become an individual and family responsibility, and less a community observance. If we don’t include younger generations in a moment to reflect on those who have who gone before and especially who risked much on our behalf, the custom of formal remembrance will slip away as quietly as the idea of church clothes.

This is not really a national holiday, then, but a communal recognition of individual memories. Perhaps before it fades into a paid day off with special prices, we can recapture some moments of reflection on our history and past lives to fortify and clarify our vision of the future. As much as we need to look back this Memorial Day, we need its remarkable and proven power to brighten our days ahead.


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