Memorial Day, a day of remembrance for fallen servicemen and women. On such a solemn occasion, barbecues seem a glib gesture. And yet the day is also deeply associated with them, with summer and hot dogs and cold beers. Which raises the question: are we ignoring the meaning of the day for cheeseburgers?
Many say yes, and with good reason. But others, myself included, point to the common saying, “Don’t mourn their death, celebrate their life.” Trite though this may seem, perhaps impossible—how do we celebrate the lives, not the sacrifice, but the lives of servicemen we never knew?—still it is a fitting tribute, especially on this day. Why remember these men and women only as the flag-draped coffins which so often symbolize sacrifice? Their lives were so much grander and richer than that final heroic moment.
On this day, I imagine their lives beforehand, which isn’t difficult. They were Americans. Their towns and childhoods and friends and passions were much the same as ours; their lives our lives. But often I turn to the wars themselves, and I imagine the time they spent between battles. I imagine the moments that many of them surely must have shared: huddled around campfires in the evening, warmed as much by the flames as by the laughter and songs and camaraderie; and, in more private moments, sharing and bonding over memories of home, of family.
Which, ultimately, is why we fight; why we scratch tooth and nail to survive. I assure you, they did not think of flags and of dying for their country. They did not think of the ideal of freedom and whether the cause was just. The things that kept them moving and fighting, the things which softened their beds at night and sweetened their dreams, were the same things that move us all, the things that get us out of bed, that set us to labor, that motivate us to achieve safer, brighter futures.
Ultimately, every Memorial Day, we honor the dead by celebrating what they died fighting for: joy and friends and family and love. We set aside our stresses and strifes for a day, uncover our barbecues, invite over those closest to us, and immerse ourselves in what makes life worth living, what makes life worth dying for. And, in doing so, we can’t help but thank our fallen patriots for building a future where we are free to do just this, where we are at liberty to pursue the happiness that has been our inalienable right from the moment of this country’s conception.