Conservatives are whining about Obama not going to Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day. (I know: you’re shocked.) Various cities lay claim to the “first” Memorial Day celebration, as the good folks at the Center for Military History have noted, and Arlington was years behind these first observances.
John W. Allen was a folklorist, historian, and museum curator at Southern Illinois University, famous throughout the region for his newspaper columns about local history. In his book Legends and Lore of Southern Illinois, his discussion of the origins of Memorial Day includes this about the first celebration in Carbondale, IL (p. 223), one of the towns who claim the first Memorial Day event:
The Carbondale claim is supported by records kept by Mr. Green, caretaker of the town’s early cemetery, by accounts of those participating in the first observance, and by contemporary church records. This observance was held at Woodlawn Cemetery on April 29, 1866. It was the outgrowth of a similar but somewhat spontaneous observance held at Crab Orchard Christian Church about four miles west and south of Carbondale on a Sunday earlier in the month.
The Carbondale observance apparently was the first in which returned veterans were major participants. Its promotion definitely was in the hands of these men, and the pattern it set was the one afterwards followed. According to Mr. Green’s record, there were 219 comrades in the line of march. They were led by Colonel E. J. Ingersoll, “Master of the Day.” Rev. J.W. Lane, pastor of First Methodist Church, offered prayer and Gen. John A. Logan was the speaker of the day. Green records one passage, perhaps the highlight of Logan’s talk: “Every man’s life belongs to his country, and no man has a right to refuse it when his country calls for it.” After this part of the program had been enacted, graves of the military dead were decorated, including one of an unknown soldier. There was a barbecue for which the Dillinger brothers furnished the hogs and John Borger the bread. There was one fight, Brannon and Russell. It must have been an eventful day. A bronze marker at the cemetery entrance marks the place as the one where Memorial Day observances began.
(That unknown soldier was a confederate soldier who died on a prison train heading north through town, and you note that they decorated his grave, too.)
The lesson from that first Memorial Day is simple. After all the veterans have marched, after all the speeches have been made, and after all the graves have been decorated, you’re not done until you have a barbecue.
There’s just one word for Memorial Day without a barbecue: sacrilegious.
YMMV (Your Menu May Vary), but you have to fire up the grill to really celebrate Memorial Day the way the founders intended, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. You can grill pork or beef or bison, chicken or turkey or duck, salmon or shrimp or crawdads, portabella mushrooms or corn in the husk or eggplant parmesean. You can grill burgers or bratwurst, peaches or potatoes. It doesn’t matter. But whatever you put on the grill, remember this: when it comes to Memorial Day, the grill is not optional.
So . . . what’s on your menu?
(h/t for photo of bratwürstchen: Markusram)