I was a teenager before I realized that Memorial Day was observed in memory of those who had died at war rather than a day to remember all of the dead. It made sense that I thought that–people who went to the cemetery that day generally left flowers on all their family graves, not only those of the war dead (I imagine now that the adults simply took the opportunity to remember everyone as long as they were already at the cemetery); the military graves were also marked with flags, but as a child I thought that was something extra that indicated a special circumstance.
I remember feeling a certain disappointment when I learned what Memorial Day actually meant. Not because I didn’t think those who died at war deserved a special day, because of course they do, but because it meant that there wasn’t a day to honor the rest of the dead. It is something we lack in our broader society.
So when I became pagan (oh so many years ago), that was something that seemed to fill a very obvious gap.
Samhain is the most widely known pagan festival for the dead, observed by Celtic pagans as well as by the many who follow the eight-spoked Wheel of the Year, but there are others.
Heathens and Norse pagans may observe Disablot, honoring the Disir or female ancestors; many also obverve Winternights as a festival of the dead.
In ancient Greece there were several–the Genesia comes first to mind, as does the festival for the Tritopatores (ancestral spirits) in Erchia and elsewhere; the third day of the Anthesteria also paid honor to the dead albeit in a more propitiatory sense. In addition, the war dead in particular were honored at the Epitaphia at Athens (so clearly the ancients saw a need for both sorts of memorials as well).
For a lot of us, honoring the ancestors has more to do with personal or household practice than with larger festivals, and many of us keep an ancestor shrine of some sort in the home, and that may in the end be a more meaningful connection. But it’s still something I see as a lack in our broader culture. Do I think there should be a civic holiday honoring the dead in general? I don’t know. There are, after all, a number of different religious options for that. But I wish there was also a shared cultural day of remembrance for those who have gone before us.
And, since today is Memorial Day for those of us in the United States, I plan later on to pour out a libation for the war-dead in particular. There’s nothing to say we can’t mark a civic festival with our own private religious customs as well, after all.