Memorial Day is a day we honor the dead in our families, and those perhaps we’ve never met…those who gave their lives so that we might live in freedom today. For freedom is never really free. It comes at a price, the price of spilled blood on the battlefields of war.
So we bring flowers and flags and remembrances of bravery and honor to grave sites, and perhaps we say a silent prayer and tell our children and grandchildren of the gallantry that still lives beneath those plots of earth. It is with great reverence and solemnity that we remember.
At one time, Memorial Day was called Decoration Day, and families would set out on horseback and later in buggies and still later in cars to visit the graves of grandparents, parents and children, all gone before. Some would picnic in the cemeteries and tell the next generation stories about family members some had never known. It is a ritual worth keeping, lest we forget.
The tradition, history tells us, probably began in the South. The proud ladies of the Confederate decorated their graves with hibiscus and primroses and draped cloth the colors of the Confederacy, while the good women of Virginia organized into groups and went en masse to honor their Union dead.
There was a struggle in the early years when the Confederate women would not hold their day of remembrance on the same day as that of the Union ladies until after World War I when the holiday changed from honoring just those who died fighting in the Civil War to honoring Americans who died fighting in any war.
Time truly changes all and eventually the rough edges of taking sides gave way to civility and shared grief. Everything becomes equal in death.
While Memorial Day was officially proclaimed on May 5, 1868 by General John Logan, commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, it was President Lyndon Johnson in 1966, who cemented the occasion. President Johnson declared Waterloo, NY, as the official birthplace of Memorial Day, still the origins are lost to history and it was probably many people in many towns across this great nation that planned celebrations and parades that continue to this day.
There is a great poem, In Flanders Fields, that inspired a woman by the name of Moina Michael to pen her own poem:
“We cherish too, the Poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led,
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies.”
This launched another tradition of wearing a single red poppy on Memorial Day which spread to France and Belgium and eventually became a custom and fundraiser to benefit orphans and servicemen. If you visit the World War I Museum in Kansas City, and you walk across the entrance, look down and observe the plethora of red poppies beneath the glass walkway—one for every soldier who died on those killing fields.
Sadly, while the tradition of this great day has diminished through the years, there is one group that continues to honor our fallen heroes. We learn of it from a blog on the Internet:
“Since the late 50’s on the Thursday before Memorial Day, the 1,200 soldiers of the 3d U.S. Infantry place small American flags at each of the more than 260,000 gravestones at Arlington National Cemetery. They then patrol 24 hours a day during the weekend to ensure that each flag remains standing. In 1951, the Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts of St. Louis began placing flags on the 150,000 graves at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery as an annual Good Turn, a practice that continues to this day.”
I am particularly humbled by this show of pride, for this is where my father who fought in World War II is buried, and where my brother, who fought in Vietnam, will come to rest when his time comes.
We bow our heads at 3 p.m. on Memorial Day to say a prayer of thankfulness for those whose courage allows us to live in freedom today. And if we’re very, very quiet, we just might hear the strains of taps wafting across the fields of everywhere.