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Kittredge: Memorial Day

Until 1967 Memorial Day was called “Decoration Day.” The tradition of placing flowers on the graves of lost soldiers is an ancient one dating back to long before the American Civil War. It was, however, during that war that the practice became widely observed.

In 1863 a feverish President Lincoln, who was later found to be coming down with smallpox, dedicated a cemetery in Gettysburg Pennsylvania - where he said, “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.” And w e would do well to take up the challenge he so passionately issued and endeavor to assure that there will be fewer graves to decorate - fewer dead to memorialize - in the year to come.

Unlike Veteran’s Day that commemorates all who have served in the armed forces, Memorial Day specifically honors the dead, those who have made what is referred to as “the ultimate sacrifice.” Honor and nobility were thus conferred upon those who had died. In a time when the graphic reality of war was not broadcast nightly on television and tales of terror were not just a mouse-click away, such deference had a kind of wistful purity not associated with war today. The vision of a principled young man enlisting to fight for his country is inspiring and maybe somewhat naïve. Today we are more familiar with the trials and hardships of war, with the confusion and discouragement experienced by those who engage in conflicts that seem to have no end.

And while serving in combat is extremely dangerous and complicated, returning home as a veteran can be equally deadly. According to a report issued by the Veteran’s Affairs Department, it is believed that at least twenty-two men and women who have served in our armed forces take their own lives every day - about one an hour.

In February President Obama signed a bill that specifically seeks to reduce the epidemic of suicides among veterans. But we can’t assume that increased funding and psychiatric care alone will cure this problem. We should reach out in any way we can to help and encourage those who have brought conflict home with them - not shunt them off to long lines at Veteran’s Affairs offices or shy away from reaching out to them, from asking about their experiences and offering support and jobs. I’d like to think we might not wait until they are gone to honor them.

Susan Cooke Kittredge is Associate Pastor of the Charlotte Congregational Church.
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