05/25/2013 09:15 am ET Updated Jul 25, 2013

Celebrating Memorial (Decoration) Day

Memorial Day could be just what our country needs!

Memorial Day has a history of bringing people together. And this year, more than ever, we need something to bring us together -- rich and poor, metropolitan and rural, East and West and Midwest, Republicans and Democrats, and so forth. And a Memorial Day of old could be just what the doctor ordered. To understand what I mean, let's go back to earlier times.

Although there is no question that we have poverty in our country today that needs to be eradicated, we, as a country, live far better than our early forefathers. There is a lot of extravagance in numerous areas of our individual and collective lives -- the houses we live in, the cars we drive, how often we eat out, the clothes we wear, the things we buy for our children, to mention only a few examples. But even as recently as my childhood, this was not the case. Most people, even business and professional people, worked long days, including Saturdays. There were no such things as three-day weekends. People usually worked the days before and after major holidays, including Christmas and New Year's.

Stores stayed open late -- in many towns and cities -- until 9:00 p.m. on Saturday nights, giving people the opportunity for shopping that they could not do during the week because they were working. And Sundays (Saturdays for Jewish people) were truly days of rest -- a time when most people attended religious services and all the retail stores and most other businesses were closed with the exception of drug stores, some restaurants, and movies, which were open on Sunday afternoons and evenings.

What does all of this have to do with Memorial Day? People worked so hard then and were so terribly busy in what little spare time they had taking care of their homes and families that they had little time to socialize. But there were occasions when groups got together and socialized in inexpensive ways. This was an era when potluck dinners and pie suppers were popular at churches and schools and when communities took the time to come together in celebrating national holidays -- like Memorial Day, called Decoration Day until 1967 when President Johnson signed the legislation renaming it as Memorial Day.

When I was young, Decoration Day was always celebrated on May 30th, regardless of what day of the week it fell on, not as part of a three-day weekend as it is now. People would gather at their local cemeteries and decorate the graves of family members. Many people used freshly cut flowers that bloomed early; others used flowers made out of crepe paper that family members spent weeks in making.

Decoration Day was a time when people all over the United States stopped what they were doing to celebrate in different ways -- but ways that always brought people together. In the small town I was reared in the high school band marched through town and ended up in the "City Cemetery," where there was a community-wide observance. The program would begin with a minister offering a prayer and saying a few words about Memorial Day -- about war and other tragedies that cause grief and sorrow and death and about the final Resurrection Day when the dead would rise from their graves to live in God's Kingdom. Then a noted politician or local community leader would speak, but it was an unwritten rule that politics or other controversial topics were never mentioned. Someone might read poetry or a small choral group sing. The entire program had a theme of national pride and achievement that bought the people together and helped them feel good about themselves, about others in the community, about the future, and about their country.

At the end, a small contingent of soldiers, usually four or five, from the local VFW or American Legion posts marched forward in formation with rifles over their shoulders and the officer in charge counting cadence and giving commands. After paying tribute to fallen soldiers, the commanding officer would order rifles into firing position, and, at his command, three or four volleys were fired into the air in unison. Then a bugler standing next to the soldiers played taps, followed by another bugler located far off at the edge of the cemetery playing taps as an echo. The buglers were usually members of the high school band. The ceremony, which was supposed to last about an hour but frequently went longer, was concluded by the minister pronouncing a benediction.

Following the formal ceremony, small groups of people from churches, neighborhoods, clubs and organizations, or family members would spread blankets under trees for a picnic, look at past photos, share stories about loved ones and friends, and remember both good and difficult times. Large families would gather at a family member's home for their own get-together. Some neighborhoods would have their own mini parades: children dressed up, decorated and rode their bikes or tricycles, or were pulled in wagons. Then they'd have a neighborhood potluck.

I wish the entire United States could have a Memorial Day celebration similar to the ones of old, when we forgot our problems, our differences that separate us, and just enjoyed each other's company. Is that too much to wish for?

There seems to be strife and division everywhere: on Capitol Hill, in our states and counties, our towns and cities; I see family members that argue and fight with each other; too many times an athletic team's intense desire to "win-at-any-cost" takes the fun out of playing, and broken bones are the end result; and, of course, on an international scene the world is comprised of fighting and hatred among people from different backgrounds -- and sometimes among people of the same background.

I'm not naïve. I don't expect the entire world to make up and for everyone to hold hands with each other this weekend. But it would be so rewarding if we in the United States -- we as individuals, families, politicians, theologians -- if "we the people" could just put our differences aside and enjoy an old-fashioned Memorial Day, a day that brings us all closer together.

America needs that!