It's going to be a different sort of Memorial Day.

The weekend leading up to the last Monday in May has long served dual purposes — honoring our fallen military members and kicking off the summer season. This year, the COVID-19 pandemic and the restrictions put in place to combat it have put a crimp in plans for both objectives.

Memorial Day, once known as Decoration Day, has its roots in the American Civil War. People on both sides of that bloody conflict honored war dead with solemn remembrances, speeches and patriotic displays of appreciation of the soldiers who fell.

While several cities claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day, we'll exercise some Upstate New York parochialism and back the claim of Waterloo, a village in Seneca County, in the Finger Lakes region. While scholars dispute the claim that Memorial Day was born there, what can't be disputed is that President Lyndon B. Johnson signed a presidential proclamation on May 26, 1966, naming Waterloo as the birthplace of the holiday. Congress had earlier recognized that the observation of Memorial Day had begun a century earlier in Waterloo.

Regardless of its origins, Memorial Day is an important part of the shared experience and social fabric of our nation. It's an emotional time, especially for families of fallen military members and for the veterans who fought alongside them. 

It's different from Veterans Day, Nov. 11, when we celebrate those who returned from war or who survived their service; and from Armed Forces Day, the third Saturday in May, when we honor those currently serving.

No, Memorial Day is when we remember and honor those who, "gave the last full measure of devotion," as President Abraham Lincoln so eloquently said in his Gettysburg Address.

Many veterans' organizations will have remembrances in some scaled-back form, to prevent drawing crowds that might spread the novel coronavirus. Others have opted to cancel observances, entirely, not willing to risk the health of their older members or of the greater community.

We honor them for such a thoughtful response to the pandemic, just as we honor them for the service that causes them to gather for such events in the first place. We regret that the public will not have an opportunity to join with them and show support this year, but we trust that they know the sacrifice of their fallen comrades-in-arms is appreciated. 

Army veteran and 25-year legionnaire Jim Benjamin, commander of American Legion Post 1135 in Morris, said it well:

“For the military community, Memorial Day is a big deal,” he told us. “You have a great deal of care in taking care of those that led the way before you and some gave the ultimate sacrifice. For vets, we’re all about honoring the day and honoring the veterans that are buried.

"We know for a lot of people, it’s the kickoff of the barbecue season and we’re OK with that; that’s why people joined the military, to give people the right to do that kind of thing," he said. "But we do appreciate it when they come out to the parade and put their hand on their heart."

We hope our readers take those words to heart and turn out in greater numbers when it's safe for us to once again gather in crowds.

Recommended for you