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Diversity Equality Inclusion - May 28, 2021

Memorial Day Reflection

by Rev. Dr. Francis H. Wade

This May 31 is Memorial Day, a national time of pause to remember and commemorate those who have died in our nation’s wars. This tradition began just after the Civil War (1861-1865) as Decoration Day, when spring flowers were placed on the multitude of graves throughout the land.

It is a remembrance with many origins. As the numbing reality of war wore off enough to allow its staggering price to become clear, various communities – from both North and South – began to memorialize the human cost of the Civil War.

One of the earliest expressions was in Charleston, South Carolina where, just weeks after the war’s end, formerly enslaved people ceremoniously re-interred the bodies of Union soldiers who had died in a local Confederate POW camp. Various cities throughout the nation soon began their own formal observances. It was Union Major General John A. Logan who first called for a national observance in 1868, naming May 30, 1868 as the first Decoration Day. By 1890, all northern states were marking May 30 as a day to commemorate the soldiers who died in the Civil War.

Sadly, the Civil War was not the last conflict our nation would endure. After World War I, “the war to end all wars”, the Decoration Day observance expanded to include Americans who had died in any war, not just the Civil War. In 1971, Congress named “Memorial Day” as a national holiday. With multiple other wars, police actions and conflicts in subsequent years, the need to remember the fallen has continued.

Memorial Day is complex in its claim on us. On one hand, we are reminded and encouraged by so many examples of courage. Gathering them all under the banner of patriotism, we are inspired.

On the other hand, we are appalled at the price we pay for our inability to peacefully resolve our differences. The moral failures necessary for any war to begin give us pause and the deepest kind of wondering about the human enterprise. Long rows of grave markers remind us that in war, every death is untimely and a violation of life’s promise. And many of us continue to bear the inner scars of grief for companions and loved ones who have died in conflict.

The loss borne by war’s victims and its survivors is compounded when we allow Memorial Day to simply mark the beginning of summer, the wearing of white shoes and outdoor grilling. Abraham Lincoln’s plea that we “highly resolve these dead shall not have died in vain” is ignored. Those who enjoy the option of prayer have one way to counter that denial. Those who can make use of silence for reflection without resolution have another.

One obscure fact of the earliest Memorial/Decoration Days may provide a particular way of thinking about the day and the events behind it. In April of 1866, one year after the Confederate surrender, while the damage of the conflict and burden of the losses still lay heavily on the land, a group of ladies in Columbus, Mississippi set out to mark the local graves of fallen soldiers. They placed flowers on both Union and Confederate graves. Two years later, on the first Decoration Day, General Logan had flowers placed on Confederate graves as well as Union ones at Arlington Cemetery.

As we remember, honor and learn from those who paid the ultimate price in wartime, perhaps it would be good to remember, honor and learn from those who have modeled the worldview that includes us all as companions on an earthly journey, sharing bonds of common creation and common destiny. If the women of war-torn Mississippi and hardened veterans like General Logan can place their flowers on enemy graves, can we aspire to do the same? What would be the contemporary equivalent of such a choice? Who is the “other” – a polite term for the enemy – in our mind today? Are flowers on graves the only way to convey messages of hope and renewal?

There is much to consider, be thankful for and honor as we remember those who have died in our nation’s wars. And there is much to consider, be thankful for and honor as we hold in mind those who continue to serve the virtues that are antidotes to war and who reach across the barriers of “other” to that which unites us all.


Rev. Francis D. (Frank) Wade is an Episcopal priest and, since 2012, a resident of Goodwin House Alexandria. His educational degrees are from The Citadel in Charleston, SC and The Virginia Theological Seminary. After serving churches in his native West Virginia for 17 years, he spent 22 years at St. Alban’s Parish adjacent to Washington National Cathedral. Over the years he has experienced many cultural upheavals. In those contexts he has seen that open and honest conversation are as necessary in searches for new understanding as masks and distancing are during a pandemic. While they do not solve the problems, no solution is possible without them. He looks forward to contributing his insight and experience on the Goodwin Living Diversity, Equality & Inclusion Committee.

About the Diversity, Equality and Inclusion (DEI) Committee: We are a group of staff and residents who together serve a mission to educate, embrace and empower a workplace of diversity, equality and inclusion. Our vision is to seek open and honest communication and collaboration that will inform and celebrate the cultural, ethnic and sexual orientation of all members of our staff without bias.

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