Despite tradition and all practical appearances, the purpose of Memorial Day is not to recognize the contributions of the basic backyard grill or to pay tribute to local Memorial Day sales.

The purpose is not even to recognize veterans — although there's never any harm in not waiting until Veterans' Day to show appreciation for those in uniform.

The intent of Memorial Day is to honor those who gave their lives in service to their country, in order that the rest of us may have the freedom to enjoy our days — as well as our families, parades and barbecues — as we please.

Memorial Day traces its roots to May 30, 1868, when flowers were placed on the graves of soldiers — Confederate as well as Union — buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Although the South, at first, chose not to participate, Gen. John A. Logan, the national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, a veterans group formed after the Civil War, proclaimed it as Decoration Day. But it wasn't until after World War I that Memorial Day became a truly national holiday, adopting its current name and theme of honoring Americans who died fighting in any war.

Unfortunately, the solemn purpose of Memorial Day is often overlooked in the pleasures of a three-day weekend that unofficially marks the start of summer. It also can be overlooked at a time when the nation struggles to extricate itself from what the president cautioned last week could become a "perpetual war" against terror.

Whether a soldier gives "the last full measure of devotion," as Abraham Lincoln once described, against a nation-state or an enemy undefined by borders, the sacrifice remains the same. Many of us would not be here, if they had not committed to be over there — at risk of not coming home.

So, between today's barbecues and other outings, we encourage readers to remember the more than 650,000 Americans have died in battle since the Revolutionary War, with the number still growing on battlefields in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

If anyone needs a reminder of locals who have died in service to this nation, their names are listed on a monument located outside Santa Rosa City Hall.

To honor other veterans who already have passed, American flags will mark hundreds of graves at Santa Rosa Memorial Park and other cemeteries in Sonoma County and across the United States. Ceremonies also are planned today at Santa Rosa Memorial Park and about a dozen other locations in Sonoma, Marin, Mendocino and Lake counties. For a complete list, go to

Remember, you don't need to be at a grave site to lay flowers — and it's all right to honor someone you never knew. It's what we have always done, and hopefully, will continue to do.