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In our opinion: A pandemic’s version of Memorial Day can revitalize its true intent

Freshly-placed flags fly over the graves of Civil War veterans in Green Mount Cemetery in preparation for Memorial Day in Montpelier, Vermont, Friday, May 22, 2009. The federal holiday was first enacted to commemorate Union soldiers from the Civil War and later expanded to honor casualties of any war or military action. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot)
Associated Press

Memorial Day 2020 is a little different, and appropriately so. The day, which began as Decoration Day, was designed as a day of remembrance and reflection in honor of those who died while serving in the U.S. military.

Sadly, it has devolved from deep thinking and gratitude to the starting party for summer. Perhaps a pandemic version of Memorial Day will restore some semblance of its original intent and the reason for remembrance.

Few things are more important than remembering. A society which loses its ability to remember, reflect and revere heroic people and proven principles is in danger of losing a great deal more.

One writer put it, “What we forget, our children may never know. What our children do not know, our grandchildren will not possess.”

Years before his appointment to the Supreme Court, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. — one of our nation’s greatest orators — spoke at an 1884 Memorial Day celebration in Keene, New Hampshire. Holmes, who was a Civil War veteran, made the case for remembering:

So to the indifferent inquirer who asks why Memorial Day is still kept up we may answer, it celebrates and solemnly reaffirms from year to year a national act of enthusiasm and faith. It embodies in the most impressive form our belief that to act with enthusiasm and faith is the condition of acting greatly.”

Acting greatly, by enthusiasm and faith, is what those who have died in service to country have done. Those who acted greatly should not only be remembered and celebrated — they must be emulated.

The future justice then described a contagion, more powerful than any novel coronavirus: “Although desire cannot be imparted by argument, it can be by contagion. Feeling begets feeling, and great feeling begets great feeling. We can hardly share the emotions that make this day to us the most sacred day of the year and embody them in ceremonial pomp without in some degree imparting them to those who come after us.”

Concluding, Holmes reflected, “Every year — in the full tide of spring — at the height of the symphony of flowers and love and life — there comes a pause, and through the silence we hear the lonely pipe of death …

“But grief is not the end of all. I seem to hear the funeral march become a paean. I see beyond the forest the moving banners of a hidden column. Our dead brothers still live for us, and bid us think of life, not death — of life to which in their youth they lent the passion and joy of the spring. As I listen, the great chorus of life and joy begins again, and amid the awful orchestra — of seen and unseen powers and destinies of good and evil — our trumpets sound once more a note of daring, hope and will.”

Remembering matters. Pausing this pandemic-affected Memorial Day to reflect on the those who gave their lives in service, indeed to think on all who have lived and died, is noble and vital for all. Listen closely, and you may hear the trumpets of triumph urging you forward toward better days.

Think today about the extraordinary women and exceptional men upon whose shoulders all are able to stand. Remember, too, that the reason they can stand on those shoulders today is because they were willing to square their shoulders at critical moments. They didn’t shrink; they didn’t shirk their responsibility.

They answered the daring and clarion call of hope and then acted greatly. Will we?

Honoring best those who have gone before starts by living life with excellence today.