Monday, May 27, 2013


In the United States, today is Memorial Day.  I have marked the occasion before, although I have not always been diligent about noting it on the day of observance (as here and here).  And I remain convinced that it is a day worth marking, for those who have fallen in service, or who survived grievous injury to body, mind, and soul in service, deserve to be remembered and honored where they have in truth been honorable.

(As I have noted, I am well aware that not all have.  But their failings do not detract from the good that their more righteous comrades have done in the world, and it is not the truth that no good has come from the mighty deeds of their comrades.)

This morning, less early in it than perhaps should have been, I thought I would take a look at 5 USC 6103 (United States Code, Title 5, Section 6103) and 36 USC 116 (United States Code, Title 36, Section 116), the laws providing for the formal observance of Memorial Day in the United States.  I ought not to have been surprised to find that they are as complicated as they are, but I was taken aback to note how much goes into a prescribed holiday--and there is more than the two cited sections of the US Code, as each references other laws entirely.

Much of the complication comes from the need in any law to be as specific and exact as possible.  Questions of definition always apply, although there is some oddness in trying to use words to define other words.  And, as I tell my students, there is a certain solemnity in observance that prompts formal language--which is typified in part by its preoccupation with specificity of naming and dating, with what each term means.

If we are to do honor to those who deserve to be honored, we do so in part by paying such detailed attention as formal language commands to the means by which we seek to honor them.  The very specificity of the diction and syntax serves to indicate that the thing being discussed is one worth close attention to detail, reinforcing the degree to which it is honored.  Taking the time to be sure that the thing is done correctly, and, indeed, stepping away from what is "normal" to do so, implies the regard for the thing and the value of that for which the thing is done.  Rather than being ostentatious for the sake of being ostentatious, it is a mark of respect and of the profundity of the relationship between that which is honored and those who would seek to honor it.

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