Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. John 15:13
A few weeks ago, I went to Tallahassee to accept a historic preservation award given to my former boss who died last year. His family could not go and they asked me to stand in for them. I wrote the award nomination for Individual Distinguished Service citing his work spearheading numerous historic preservation efforts and partnering with four historic preservation nonprofits. With his support, twenty-six buildings were preserved as well as a 19thCentury steam locomotive, several historical boats and farm implements. The culmination of his career occurred at the dedication of the recreated historical courtroom and native, historic landscaping. I believed every word I wrote so the trip to accept the award was bittersweet. Even after almost a year, I still miss his wisdom and leadership very much. Seeing the images of the projects he worked on and the buildings he helped to save on a big screen at the awards ceremony was almost too much for me. Afterwards, we went to a reception. People who recognized me from the ceremony would come up and congratulate me on “my” award. Didn’t they pay attention? Didn’t they realize that it was not my work being recognized and someone died to get the award? I was too emotional to try and correct them so just said, “thank you” and walked away. I was thinking about that over the weekend as people kept saying “Happy Memorial Day.” The words happy and memorial should not be in the same sentence. When we are memorializing someone, we do so with sadness at the loss we feel. Yes, I know all about “they have gone to a better place”, but that doesn’t really lessen our immediate sorrow and emptiness. Memorial Day started in 1868 as a way to honor those who died fighting in the Civil War. Though the southern states refused to participate on the same day as the northern states, with somewhere between 620,000 and 850,000 soldiers who died, there wasn’t anyone in the United States who was somehow affected by that war. Originally, the day was spent in cemeteries, cleaning graves and decorating them with flowers. Though it was first called Decoration Day and 5,000 people gathered to decorate the graves of 20,000 soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery, in 1971, the day was standardized to be the last Monday in May creating a three day weekend that many spend celebrating the beginning of summer instead of thinking solemnly about war dead. In fact, Memorial Day is synonymous to the 3 Bs, BBQ, beer and beach. There are many ways that we can honor the dead, monuments, ceremonies, gratitude, resolutions to live a better life, but to me, Happy Memorial Day is an oxymoron. I suppose you could say that being happy, living each day like it was our last, is a fitting tribute to those who died to preserve our freedoms, but to me, that’s a little like saying “Congratulations” for a posthumous award that I didn’t earn.