On May 30, 1868, a congressman from Ohio named James A. Garfield was called on to speak at the inauguration of the very first Decoration Day at Arlington National Cemetery. Garfield had served as a general in the Civil War, and as he stood amidst more than 15,000 graves in the National Cemetery—which had been established just four years earlier—he spoke with a veteran’s heart.

“We do not know one promise these men made, one pledge they gave, one word they spoke. But we do know they summed up and perfected, by one supreme act, the highest virtues of men and citizens. For love of country they accepted death, and thus resolved all doubts, and made immortal their patriotism and their virtue.”

With these stirring words, Congressman Garfield—who would go on to become our 20th president—set the tone for the Memorial Day observances that grew out of that original holiday. On Armed Forces Day (commemorated on the third Saturday of May) we celebrate all of the armed forces service personnel. On Veterans Day (November 11 each year) we celebrate every person that has served across the history of our nation. But on Memorial Day we reverently and gratefully honor the patriotism and sacrifices of those who died serving our country.

The coronavirus has forced the cancellation of virtually all of the ceremonies and events that generally mark the observance of Memorial Day, but it has not diminished, and it will not diminish, our indebtedness to those who in life gave everything for their country and our freedom, and who in death are worthy of our greatest respect.

The observation of Memorial Day this year may be less visible, a bit more subdued, constrained by this terrible virus that has already cost us so much. But our appreciation will not be neglected, nor will the honor and esteem that this day memorializes. Garfield’s sentiments in 1868 are surely ours today: “Here let them rest, asleep on the Nation’s heart, entombed in the Nation’s love.”

 

(James A. Garfield’s remarks of May 30, 1868, are cited in The Life and Work of James A. Garfield by John Clark Ridpath, 1881.)