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Memorial Day Address

May 27, 2002
Highland, Indiana

Memorial Day, as many of you know, has its origins in Decoration Day. The name comes from the act of decorating the graves of fallen soldiers, a practice begun by some women in the south before the end of the Civil War. The graves were decorated as a sign of remembrance and respect. Then in 1868, the custom was extended and made official when General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, ordered flowers placed on the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery.

General Logan's act was at the same time an act of remembrance and an act of reconciliation. It paid respect to all soldiers who died in that war, acknowledging that they were all Americans. After World War I, Memorial Day was officially extended to honor those Americans who died fighting in any war.

We are gathered here today because those who died in the defense of our country deserve our most profound respect. They gave their lives so that ours could be secure and worthwhile.

Above all else, theirs were lives of unfilled promise. At the very least we can show our respect for them by living up to our own promise. We do so by making something of our own lives - since they gave so much to make that possible.

On this day of remembrance and respect - Memorial Day, 2002 - it would be most appropriate to enlarge our thinking to include remembrance of those who gave their lives in a less conventional form of warfare. Although they were not soldiers, the individuals who lost their lives to the terrorist attacks of September 11 - at the World Trade Towers, at the Pentagon and on a field in Pennsylvania - also lived lives of unfilled promise. This year, more than ever, it is important to reflect on these losses and find ways to be sure that we live up to our promise as a way of giving significance to their deaths.

What can we do with our lives to honor and remember those who died for our way of life? First, of course, we can work every day to fulfill the promise of our own lives. "Be all we can be," as the saying goes. If others have died to make this possible for us, would it not be disrespectful to ignore or dismiss their acts by squandering our opportunities?

But I think we must take this thought yet another step. Their lives of unfilled promise had an immediate and direct impact on family and friends: parents, children, colleagues, classmates, soul mates - anyone whose lives they touched before they died. Their passing was also a loss of potential impact on anyone whose lives they would have touched had they lived.

Their sacrifices were their own loss, to be sure, but they were also a loss to countless unknown others as well. Children who do not have a parent; wives without a husband, students who lost a teacher, neighbors who lost a friend, employers who lost a worker. Don't we owe the dead, out of respect for their sacrifices for us, some effort to improve the lives of those they left behind?

Shouldn't we do some of what they can no longer do because of what they did for us? I am not suggesting that we here in Indiana adopt the survivors of those who died in war - not personally, at any rate. But if they died so we could fulfill the promise of our lives in this great society, don't we show our respect by making the world a better place? Wouldn't that help fulfill the promise of their lives?

Each of us can make a contribution to society - our local community, our region, the state, or even the world. We can volunteer through social service agencies, we can read to children in elementary schools, we can run for local political office, we can help our neighbors in need. There are hundreds of choices for community service or civic involvement, any one of which is likely to make our society a better place in just the way that those who lost their lives might have wished.

In doing so we will touch lives that might otherwise have been touched by someone who died for this country. We honor those who died at war by making this the kind of society that is worth their sacrifice. That is something we can do every day.

On this Memorial Day 2002, it is worth reminding ourselves of the reasons we make these efforts at a special occasion like this one. Community service is a small but valuable token of our respect - and it is a symbol of remembrance - for those who have made community life possible.

Our futures are before us. As we live out our promise, it is humbling to know that others paid a very high price - the ultimate price - to make our futures possible.

A life that includes service to others is a most fitting way to respect those Americans who died at war. It is a living memorial. A remembrance of our past and a reconciliation with the future - to assure that lives were not lost in vain.

Thank you for inviting me to share these thoughts with you today.

Thank you.

Howard Cohen

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