In an 1884 Memorial Day address, Joshua Chamberlain observed that throughout history civilizations have honored their heroes with towering monuments of stone, all built for the ages but all doomed to crumble and fall. The monuments that last, said the hero of Gettysburg, are those we build in our hearts, where the defenders of humanity’s highest ideals “shall live and rise and spread in blessing beyond our sight…and beyond the touch of time.”
This most hallowed day originated just where Gen. Chamberlain said it should — in the heart. With the battles of the Civil still raging and the outcome in doubt, grieving wives and mothers in the North and South began placing wildflowers on the modest graves of the fallen from both sides of the conflict.
This spontaneous and sincere gesture of respect for the dead and of compassion for their families spread throughout the land. It was not until three years after the war’s end that Gen. John A. Logan issued the order establishing the observance we now know as Memorial Day. The solemn trust, Gen. Logan wrote, was ours to keep “as long as the light and warmth of life remain to us.”
For nearly a century and a half, Americans have faithfully kept that trust. This Memorial Day, we will gather again to express our gratitude. In countless villages, small towns, and big cities, we will honor those who gave their all for all of us. As we do, we are reminded that freedom is a gift purchased at the greatest possible price.
The sacrifice involved in giving one’s life for the sake of others cannot be measured. Neither can the cost paid by the families of the dead. For them, the battles of the past do not fade into history but remain vivid and painful. Losses from the World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, and the Gulf War still burden the hearts of families throughout our country. New burdens of grief are borne by the families of those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. By keeping the trust of Memorial Day, we tell these families that they do not bear these terrible burdens alone.
As we honor the fallen, we also honor those who served and returned home, and those who serve today. And while we thank our men and women in uniform for their sacrifices and contributions, we also thank the families - the husbands and wives, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, and mothers and fathers - who endure the separation and the anxiety that are also part of freedom’s price.
The willingness of some to give their lives so that others might live is perhaps the most profound mystery of the human spirit. The men and women of America’s armed forces do not volunteer to die. Rather, they volunteer to defend the values for which men and women have always been willing to die if need be - the values that make us truly human.
Although he would live for another 30 years, the grievous wounds Joshua Chamberlain sustained in the Civil War were taking a heavy toll on his health when he delivered his remarkable speech in 1884. Perhaps it was awareness of his own mortality or the still vivid memories of fallen comrades that led him to conclude with these powerful words:
“We do not live for self.... We are a part of a larger life, reaching before and after, judged not by deeds done in the body but deeds done in the soul. We wish to be remembered. Willing to die, we are not willing to be forgotten.”
As long as Americans keep the trust of Memorial Day, those who served will never be forgotten.