Monday’s Memorial Day ceremonies are a time-honored event in the life of our town, ushering in warmer days and marked by a silent procession to local cemeteries and monuments, the laying of geraniums at the graves of soldiers, the playing of taps, the delivery of speeches, and the tolling of bells for veterans who have died since Memorial Day 2018. Townsfolk who follow the honor guard from the Civil War memorial, to Town Center Cemetery and the World War I and World War II monuments are walking in the footsteps of generations who have come before, doing their part to ensure that an important community tradition endures.
Memorial Day began as a remembrance of those who died in the Civil War. The tradition is one that’s been repeated in towns throughout New England since that time, an era when families and veterans struggled to cope with the loss of loved ones and comrades in a war that claimed thousands and thousands of lives. But as Rick Atkinson reminds readers in his newly published account of the Revolutionary War, “The British Are Coming,” such horrors did not begin in April 1861. That earlier conflict was also costly. A ravaging outbreak of smallpox, the harsh treatment of prisoners by the British, and the poor chances of surviving a gunshot wound took the lives of thousands of soldiers. And the recent dedication of a memorial at Devens to those who died in the post-WWI flu pandemic is another reminder that wars cost lives beyond the battlefield.
When we honor those who fell in war, we tend to think of battlefields—Yorktown, Gettysburg, the Marne, D-Day, Khe Sanh, Fallujah. But beyond those who died in such battles are those who died of illness or in captivity, those killed by IEDs or accidents. And we must also think of those whose service to our country left them traumatized or depressed to the point of suicide. This is a day to honor all those who, in military service, went places they would not otherwise have gone and faced dangers they would not otherwise have met.
Memorial Day is not a political holiday. It’s a day to gather as a community and to reflect and remember, in gratitude, lives that have been sacrificed, in the name of freedom and a sense of duty to one’s country. It’s a civic habit, but an essential one.