How to honor the dead this Memorial Day

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Memorial Day is one of our country’s most important holidays. It may not be as beloved as Christmas and Thanksgiving, or accorded the same level of festivity as the Fourth of July, but there are few tasks more vital to our national health than remembering those who have died in defense of the liberties that define us as Americans. The holiday began shortly after the Civil War—it was initially called Decoration Day—when citizens across the country placed flowers at the graves of those who fought and died in those horrific battles. It evolved to include a remembrance of all Americans who gave their lives in combat when World War I required further sacrifices from our people.

Today, many pay homage to the dead through backyard barbeques and a day of relaxation. And that’s great. Taking time to enjoy the freedoms more than 1.1 million Americans died to secure is both valid and appropriate. But our commitment cannot stop there.

One of the best ways that we can honor their sacrifice is by taking better care of those who were equally willing to die in defense of those same principles yet survived. Great work has been done, for example, to help reduce the number of homeless veterans over the last several years, but roughly 50,000 still spend any given night on the streets. And more than 540,000 veterans have been diagnosed with PTSD, making it far more difficult for them to re-assimilate into civilian life once their time in the military has come to an end. Charities like Homes for our Troops, Operation Homefront, Wounded Warriors Family Support, and countless others are doing great things to help, but it’s worth taking a few extra minutes to check with organizations like Charity Navigator and the BBB Wise Giving Alliance to see how charities use the funds they receive before giving.

One final way that we can honor the memory of those who fought and died is to understand the difference between honoring their sacrifice and the reason they had to give it. War may be a necessary evil in this fallen world, but that doesn’t change the fact that it remains evil. Yet, as John Stuart Mill once wrote, “War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feelings which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse.”

Memorial Day gives us the chance to celebrate and honor the bravery of those who were willing to fight and die in defense of something greater than themselves, but we must never do so without also remembering the inherent tragedy behind the fact that such a sacrifice was necessary in the first place. So perhaps the best way to honor the fallen is to do everything in our power to help prevent others from having to make the same sacrifice.

There will be times where war is the only alternative to an even greater evil, but its necessity does nothing to lessen its tragedy. The day we forget that will bode ill for our country and for our witness. We have been called to love others as God loves them, whether they are our enemies, our friends, or anywhere in between (John 13:34–35, Matthew 5:44–45). How will you live that out this Memorial Day?