“Then Joshua summoned the twelve men from the Israelites, whom he had appointed, one from each tribe. Joshua said to them, “Pass on before the ark of the LORD your God into the middle of the Jordan, and each of you take up a stone on his shoulder, one for each of the tribes of the Israelites, so that this may be a sign among you. When your children ask in time to come, ‘What do those stones mean to you?’ then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off in front of the ark of the covenant of the LORD. When it crossed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. So these stones shall be to the Israelites a memorial forever.” (Joshua 4:1-7)
Since the beginnings of human history, remembering our past and how it defines our character and makes us the people of God has been important to our identity. As Joshua lead the people across the Jordan river to finally end their long 40 year journey from Egypt into the promised land, God wanted to make sure they would remember this event. So God instructed Joshua to have twelve men, one from each of the twelve tribes carry a stone across the Jordon for a memorial. So that when their children asked why, they could share with them the story of God's mighty deeds in freeing them from Egypt and leading them to the promised land.
As humans, we continue to tell our stories through memorials. Today, Monday, May 27 is Memorial Day or when I was child, I often heard others call it Decoration Day. My earliest memories of the day, related to our family tradition of going to the local cemeteries and planting flowers on the graves of family members, so their graves would look colorful during the summer. These moments at the cemeteries gave me an opportunity to learn the stories about our family. As I grew older I learned about the larger story of Memorial Day as a day of remembrance for those who have served our nation in the Armed Forces.
As many things develop in a society the exact moment in which Memorial Day was born is claimed by many communities. Most likely, it was born out of the hearts of men and women throughout our country who felt it was important to remember the sacrifices of the men and women who died during the American Civil War on both sides. Even before the end of the Civil War throughout the country the widows of soldiers would go out to decorate the graves of the fallen soldiers graves, thereby beginning a tradition picked up by other communities.
One of the first recorded accounts was on May 5, 1868, three years after the end of the Civil War. Maj. Gen. John A. Logan, head of an organization of Union veterans from the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) established May 30, as a day when the country would decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers. It is believed that date was chosen because flowers would be in bloom all over the country. The first large observance was held that same year at Arlington National Cemetery, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C.
It is not important who was the very first, what is important is that Memorial Day was established. Each community and every planned or spontaneous gathering of people to honor the war dead in the 1860's tapped into the general human need to honor our dead after the nation had experienced a major Civil War. Memorial Day became a day not about division, but a day about reconciliation and the healing of a nation; it was about coming together to honor those who gave their all. Sadly, for many Memorial Day is simply the first three day weekend of the summer season, but it should be remembered for the day in our history when we remember ourselves as a nation and the stories of this nation which shape our identity. The sense of duty, sacrifice, and faith of those who gave their all to maintain a free nation is why, we today have the privilege to experience a three day weekend at all.