Most of us don’t put much thought into the difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day. They are both days meant to honor people who served in the military.
But you better believe there’s a difference. And if either holiday deserves to be treated with more reverence than the other, I would argue that holiday is Memorial Day.
That’s the day we honor the lives of men and women who lost their lives in service to the country.
When I was in college, I took a sociology class. The professor’s particular interest was in discerning what he could about societies by the way they marked the graves of their people. He showed us pictures of headstones from different eras and in different parts of the country and he explained what he thought the different headstones said about society at that time.
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The headstones in our family cemetery are all markedly different. The short, narrow headstone made of a white stone marks the grave of a child who died in 1866. It’s much different than the most recent headstone – my mother’s – which was put in place in 2002.
Walk through any large cemetery – especially one with any age – and you’re sure to find a variety of headstones with all manner of messages and information on them. Think of the sterile white headstones that mark the most recent deaths in Arlington National Cemetery. For most of us, that’s the picture that’s sticks out in our mind’s eye when we think of Arlington.
But visit some of the older parts of that cemetery and you’ll see enormous headstones marking other graves, like the one of Admiral Robert Peary, the first man to reach the North Pole. His headstone has a replica of the Earth with the North Pole prominently noted.
Regardless of the kind of headstone on each service member’s grave, I think it’s more important to think about the life they led. Those who die in war die young. We don’t send old men and women into battle in this country anymore.
Those who died may have left behind spouses and children – children who had to grow up without a parent. Some, I’m sure, grew up never having known one of their parents.
Others may have died before they married or before they had children. It’s impossible to know what kind of parent they might have been or what kind of husband or wife they would have made.
They all had likes and dislikes. They all had personalities and favorite places. They all had experiences they hoped they would be able to relive one day. They never did.
The first soldier I ever interviewed was a man named Claude Renn. He was among those who stormed the beaches in France during D-Day. I talked to him for a story on the 50th anniversary of D-Day in 1994. He obviously survived his war experience and led out his life on a small Granville County farm. He died in 2002, but he had successfully raised a family and he lived a full life. An afternoon spent on the front porch of his tiny little farmhouse made it clear war had shaped the man he would become.
Bobby Carmichael died in 1970 in a helicopter crash in Vietnam. He was 28 and single. What life might have held in store for him, no one will ever know. But if you visit his grave and look at his headstone in the cemetery of a small country church in Vernon Hill, Va., you can imagine the tranquil life he might have led far from the chaos of war.
Those are the lives we should remember this Memorial Day.