We owe it to veterans to know Memorial Day history

May 26, 2012

As we enter the Memorial Day weekend, we are reminded that we are all on a journey. It may be practical or spiritual. Some people will turn around often, contemplating their path, looking for signs. Others will keep going, head down, never wavering as they are ever mindful of their goal.

For some this is a long process with many twists on an uneven road. And then there are those who have that journey cut short, unexpectedly over before they have had a chance to realize those dreams here on Earth. But we who are left behind come together on this Memorial Day weekend to honor those lives and those dreams; we come together to pay tribute to the men and women who have died in our nation’s service.

We owe it to those veterans and ourselves to know some of the history of this great holiday. Originally, Memorial Day was known as Decoration Day. Its history goes as far back as the Civil War, when it was noted that women’s organizations were decorating the graves of fallen soldiers.

According to historical sources, many cities and towns claim to be the origin of Memorial Day, holding spontaneous demonstrations and parades. But General John Logan in 1868 is often cited as the first to order flowers placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery May 30.

By the late 1800s, more communities joined in and after World War I, when the honor fell to include any soldier who died fighting for his country, the nation had found a way to unite for those who gave the ultimate sacrifice.

In 1971, Congress made Memorial Day a national holiday to be observed on the last Monday in May.

There are two visible remembrances that most people associate with this holiday. Nationally, it is the placing of the wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Locally it is the red poppies sold as an emblem of keeping faith with those who have died. The later was started by Moina Michaels inspired by the poem “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrea.

Unfortunately, many of those early traditions and important tributes for our military have fallen by the wayside, taken out like a thief in the night by the idea of a three-day vacation from work. Lots of folks think the holiday is to honor any of the dead, regardless if they served their country. Cemeteries go bare, with tombstones standing stoic, but without American flags. It’s unusual to hear the drums and horns from a marching parade. And few are aware of any American flag protocol.

Sure, we should go on with our picnics, barbecues and family gatherings. For most of us think of this time as the beginning of the summer season. We should relax after a long winter, and we especially rely on folks heading to the beaches. However, the remembrance of the sacrifice is too deep not to reflect.

We can change all that at any moment. It’s especially important today with so many of our young men and women far away. The National Moment of Remembrance resolution passed in 2000 asked everyone to take a moment of silence at 3 p.m. local time on that day to remember the fallen heroes of our country. Make it part of your journey.

The poem “In Flanders Fields” best describes our mandate:

“In Flanders fields the poppies blow Between the crosses row on row
That mark our place; and in the sky the larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago, We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow;
Loved and were loved, and now we lie in Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe; To you from failing hands we throw
The torch, be yours to hold it high. If ye break faith with us who die, We shall not sleep, though poppies grow in Flanders fields.”

  • Nancy Katz has a degree in creative writing and is the author of the book, "Notes from the Beach." She has written the column Around Town for the Cape Gazette for twenty years. Her style is satirical and deals with all aspects of living in a resort area on Delmarva.

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