Across the country, Memorial Day is too often treated simply as the beginning of summer or, at least, of the vacation season. The elaborate Memorial Day celebrations of years past, which used to be found in every town and city, are now few and far between. Even among those who still observe Memorial Day, its original meaning has often been lost. As Chuck Sweeny, a columnist for the Rockford Register Star, once pointed out in a Memorial Day column, Memorial Day is not meant to honor veterans or those currently serving in the Armed Forces; instead:
It's the day we honor the memories of the armed forces members who never made it to veteran status because they were killed fighting for their country in wars, police actions, peace-keeping missions or terrorist attacks.
When I was growing up, our entire village would turn out for the Memorial Day parade, which would end at the village cemetery, where a bugler would play taps and the names of all the local men (and boys) who had died in any war would be read aloud. When the ceremony ended, people would spread out through the graveyard, visiting the resting places of friends and loved ones, offering prayers and introducing the young to those who had gone before.
That's why, to me, Memorial Day always seemed the most Catholic of American holidays. Respect and honor for the dead, and the connection between the body that lies in the ground, awaiting resurrection, and the soul that has gone before it--these are very Catholic themes. And much like All Souls Day (November 2), Memorial Day is a very special time to pray for the souls in Purgatory, especially those who died in the service of our country.
(The gravestone of Henry V. Nivinski, a veteran of World War II, in Saint Mary and Saint James Cemetery in Rockford, Illinois. Photo © Scott P. Richert)