On the very far north edge of my neighborhood (Capitol Hill in Seattle), on the other side of Volunteer Park, there is the famous Lake View Cemetery where one can find the graves of martial arts film star Bruce Lee and his son Jason. But few people go just a bit further where there is a small specialized cemetery for veterans of the Civil War, The Grand Army of the Republic Cemetery. There are about 500 graves there, including at least one Medal of Honor recipient and some veterans of the U.S. Colored Troops, which according to the signage were Union regiments made up of African American soldiers and white officers. (A-hem.)
I would wager that most Seattleites don’t know about this place, given the Pacific Northwest being as far removed from the Civil War as one can get in the lower 48; Washington was not a state until 1889, and yet here in a tiny corner of modern, major US city is a reminder that the Civil War was here, too.
I mention this because Memorial Day was initially started following the Civil War, wherein people visited the graves and cleaned them up out of respect for the fallen, and over time it has become generalized and confused with Veterans Day. Memorial Day is supposed to be about remembering our war dead; Veterans Day is giving thanks to our (living) Vets. It’s a fine distinction and one we should not forget.
For most of us Memorial Day marks the beginning of summer, outdoor parties, and grilled food; I’m told it marks when society ladies again can wear white shoes in public, though I don’t understand these rules well. Retailers use Memorial Day to discount slow moving items (almost always relating to summer), which seems like a strange way to remember those who died while wearing a uniform.
But I digress, and so back to The Grand Army of the Republic Cemetery we go. For a long while the cemetery languished and creeping vegetation obscured the graves, and allegedly at some point it was proposed to be used as an off-leash dog park; that final insult is what got the cemetery cleaned up.
The Veterans Administration has replaced missing headstones that disappeared during the long, untended years and others that have worn away after 100+ years of exposure in Seattle’s legendary rain.
As in years past, my plans for Memorial Day includes a visit to The Grand Army of the Republic Cemetery, to spend a quiet moment saying thank you. By the calendar that war seems so long ago, but by our culture, the battles are on-going.