It was 143 years ago today - just a few short years after America's War Between the States - that an official day was first observed for placing flowers or other items of remembrance at the graves of soldiers who had died during that devastating conflict.
The observance was originally called Decoration Day.
But over time, it was renamed Memorial Day, and it came to be an occasion for remembering the men and women who have died in military service during all of our country's wars.
Today, many Americans will have picnics or barbecues with friends and family. Others may view colorful displays of fireworks.
There is certainly nothing wrong with any of that.
But as heirs of a free nation - the greatest nation in the history of the world - we should also pause today to reflect on how our freedom was first gained and has been guarded over the centuries by men and women who laid down their lives for our country.
Most fortunately, we are not currently engaged in another War Between the States, nor in another World War. But our troops are performing with both courage and skill in Afghanistan and Iraq. Thousands who have served in those wars will never return home. They have made the ultimate sacrifice for our country, just as many thousands before them have done in previous wars.
Our troops do not pick and choose the wars they will fight. They serve willingly where our national leaders send them. While most of our troops do thankfully return home, they and their families are aware when they sign up for military service that they could be placed in deadly combat situations.
We should, of course, honor all those who have served in the past or who are serving currently. But on this particular day of the year, we express our most humble appreciation to those who have fallen in service to our country.
Today is not only a time for somber reflection, however. We also celebrate the marvelous legacy of heroism that those who sacrificed everything for this country have passed down from generation to generation.
Their bravery continues to inspire us generally as a nation. And more specifically, they inspire the patriotic fervor of young people today to volunteer for our armed forces and serve our country at home and abroad.
So while Memorial Day 2011 is a solemn holiday for us as Americans, it should also be a time of joy and thankfulness. The sacrifices of those who have served in the military have helped to keep us a free people for well over two centuries. If our nation holds fast to that patriotic spirit of service, we may look forward to more centuries of freedom, whatever the challenges we may face around the world.