One of my earliest memories of Memorial Day is marching in the parade in my hometown of Quakertown, Pennsylvania.
Marching bands from the high school and middle schools walked the streets along with cub scout troups and civic organizations. The parade halted before a World War I memorial in the park on Mill Street, in front of an ancient howitzer that the kids would climb if their mothers let them. At the halt (where at least one young marcher would faint in the heat almost every year) a student would recite the lines from In Flanders Fields about the poppies, row by row. Another would read portions of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, telling us that "It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced."
As a child, it was difficult to understand the importance of remembrance. It becomes easier as you get older and you see the world moving onward, both changing and forgetting. Lincoln was 54 years old when he wrote his famous address, and it was probably against that backdrop of middle age that he asked his audience not to forget the sacrifices made at the Battle of Gettysburg.
Lincoln also spoke against a backdrop of great controversy. By 1863 the Civil War was not yet won and therefore Lincoln posed the question "whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure."
Perhaps it is a part of human nature that there is always a great controversy. Humans are torn by the desire to improve their society and their deserve to conserve the parts they value. That dual desire guarantees, it seems, there are will always be a controversy.
And yet for the United States, it is our freedom to debate our controversies and decide our collective path forward that is particularly special among all nations. All those who sacrificed and died for that freedom are those we must not forget on Memorial Day. It is for that reason, as Lincoln wrote, "that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."