Moving date dilutes tradition of holiday

Published May 28, 2007

How's your holiday weekend going so far? Made plans for today?

Planning a patio or pool party? Gathering your goodies for grilling? Surveying the sales for shopping?

Devising a devotion to the dead?

Warning to the eye-rolling, "here-comes-the-patriotic-punchline" crowd: I hope you stump your toe or some other delicate appendage on my soapbox, because this needs to be said.

Memorial Day, a federal "holiday" set aside to pay solemn tribute to the service men and women who have died fighting for their country, has turned into an unfocused day of merrymaking and/or indolence. For most people it has absolutely no extraordinary meaning. With the exception of those who honor their loved ones by paying a visit to the cemetery or attending a ceremony sponsored by a service organization, Memorial Day is nothing more than a 24-hour extension of a weekend that heralds the end of the school year and the beginning of summer.

Think I'm wrong about people not appreciating the true meaning of Memorial Day? Ask the next five people you see about its origin or objective. I'll bet four out of five will equate it to Veterans Day, which recognizes all who have served in the U.S. military. Most don't know this particular day in May singles out those who have died.

That is a significant difference and the U.S. Congress is responsible for diluting the spirit and tradition of Memorial Day by passing, in 1971, a law that changed the observance from May 30 to "the last Monday of May." That misguided act traded our country's conscious for convenience.

There have been attempts to restore awareness about the meaning of Memorial Day. In his last year in office, President Bill Clinton declared the National Moment of Remembrance, which calls on all Americans to stop what they are doing at 3 p.m. on Memorial Day (the observed one) each year and observe a moment of silence in honor of those who gave all they had to give in defense of our country's freedom. That's an earnest gesture, but it should take place on May 30 (the traditional one).

Since 1989, Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii and a Medal of Honor recipient who left his right arm on a battlefield in Europe, has sponsored a bill every two years that would reinstate May 30 as the traditional day of observance. Support from members of the House of Representatives has been spotty, and each time the bill has been referred to some catch-all committee, where it, like the memory of too many veterans, languishes and dies.

Inouye's bill this year is S70 (http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/z?c110:S.70.IS:) and there is a petition circulating on the Internet (www.usmemorialday.org/ backgrnd.html) urging people to sign it and post their reasons for supporting it.

Shuffling around Memorial Day to the last Monday in May implicitly disrespects the individual sacrifices of the fallen and demeans the commemoration of their collective memory, all in the name of expedient scheduling.

After all, Independence Day is July 4, not "the first Monday of July." If it is appropriate to designate a day to celebrate America's freedom, it makes just as much sense to specify a day to honor those who died protecting that freedom.

Move Memorial Day back to May 30. That's the only way to recapture the true meaning of the observance. And forget those folks who will whine about it spoiling their precious three-day weekend. They will still get one three out of every seven years.

In the meantime, please try to find some way to observe this floating federal holiday today. If nothing else, display Old Glory (and if you do, the etiquette is half-staff until noon and then raise it to full-staff).

Don't get me wrong; you don't necessarily have to plant a flag at a cemetery or wear your grief on your sleeve on Memorial Day. There's nothing wrong with firing up the grill or taking the kids to the beach. But those activities should be accompanied by some thoughtful acknowledgement that legions of deceased veterans helped make your choices of leisure possible.

No doubt, they probably would have as much fun as you if they were still here.

Jeff Webb, editor of editorials of the Hernando Times, can be reached at webb@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6123.