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May 30 2011

Annoying public piety

Today is Memorial Day in the US, which is meant to commemorate those killed in wars while serving in some military capacity, though over time people also use it to commemorate the deaths of any loved ones. While there are official events such a parades and flag flying and laying of wreaths at war memorials and in cemeteries, the day coincides with the onset of summer-like weather, and thus is seen as the beginning of the season for summertime activities. Since 1971, when the date was shifted from the fixed May 30 to the last Monday in May, people in the wintry regions of the country have seen this three-day weekend as the date to signal the emergence from their winter cocoons and organize barbecues and picnics and go to amusement parks and the like to take advantage of the warm weather.

This does not sit well with some people and without fail you can expect to see opinion pieces and editorials and letters to the editor of your local newspaper complaining that Memorial Day is not being treated with the solemnity it deserves.

I don’t understand these scolds who want to be able to dictate what other people should do and feel. If you want to treat the day solemnly and think deep thoughts about life and death, go ahead, knock yourself out. But if others want to use a holiday to enjoy themselves, let them be. As long as the fun-seekers don’t get in the face of the solemn ones and vice versa, there really should be no problem.

I remember as an adolescent feeling bored one Good Friday (which is a government holiday in Sri Lanka) after going to our church in the morning for the traditional three-hour service. I asked my mother whether I could go and see a film. Since I was a religious boy, I felt that I was asking for something not quite appropriate since it did not seem right to go and enjoy myself on the day that we were supposed to commemorate Jesus dying for our sins, which is a pretty big deal. So I fully expected her to say no but she cheerfully agreed. I think she had the healthy attitude that no one was genuinely grieving about an event that (supposedly) happened 2,000 years ago and that one should not overdo the piety. Having me mope around the house was not benefiting anyone.

I have grown increasingly impatient with these public grievings over past events by people who have no connection to the events or the people being commemorated. It seems to me to have become mainly occasions for hypocritical sanctimony by elected officials who try to outdo each other in public piety. We can expect to see an orgy of this on the tenth anniversary of the events of September 11, 2001.

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