By Jan White
Memorial Day is often considered the unofficial beginning of summer. The long weekend is used for family get-togethers – time to fire up the grill and serve classic nostalgia-invoking foods like hot dogs, burgers, potato salad and baked beans. Or gas up the boat, dust the cobwebs off, and take it out for a spin. And while an extended weekend with friends and family is time well spent, the true purpose of Memorial Day is to serve as a reminder to pause and remember members of the military who died while serving in the United States Armed Forces.
The concept of a special day for observing those lost in combat began after the Civil War ended. The country was still grieving the loss of over 650,000 men and boys. And that grief was compounded by the fact that some families had relatives who had fought against each other. Women visiting the gravesites of their deceased relatives found themselves placing flowers on the tombstones of those who fought on both sides of the battle. It was General John Logan, the second Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, who issued General Order Number 11, designating May 30, 1868, as a day set aside to honor fallen soldiers. The first official “Decoration Day” was held at the Arlington National Cemetery with over 5,000 attendees. After speeches were made, children from the “Soldiers and Sailors Orphan Home” made their way through the cemetery, laying flowers on both Union and Confederate graves, reciting prayers, and singing hymns. Logan envisioned the day as one “designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country.” About the day, Logan wrote, “Let no ravages of time testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided.”
For more than a century, the ritual of visiting cemeteries, memorials, and gravesites on May 30 continued. It was an annual act of remembrance, a time for cleaning and revitalizing local cemeteries and decorating the gravesites of the men and boys who died in combat. As the scope of the day of remembrance expanded to include not just those who died in the Civil War but any fallen soldier in any war, the name also changed. Decoration Day became Memorial Day, and in 1971 it was declared a national holiday. In order for the holiday to conform to the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, the date was officially changed to the last Monday in May.
Over the years, many traditions have been associated with Memorial Day. Flags are flown at half-staff. Bugles reverently play Taps.
The National Moment of Remembrance, created by President Bill Clinton, urges citizens to observe a moment of silence at 3 p.m. on each Memorial Day. Graves of fallen warriors are decorated with flowers and flags, and other memorabilia. And some observe the day with a century-old tradition - wearing a red poppy to remember those who have passed.
Wearing a red poppy in honor of fallen soldiers started with a poem penned in 1915 by John McCrae. “In Flanders Fields” is written from the graveyard aspect of a fallen soldier. The poem begins, “In Flanders Fields, the poppies grow/Between the crosses, row on row,” and ends, “If ye break faith with us who die/We shall not sleep, though poppies grow/In Flanders Fields.” The poem was published in a London magazine and later distributed to other Allied countries. The visual of those blood-red poppies representing the lifeblood of the fallen soldiers inspired two different women on two separate continents to make and sell silk and paper blooms to raise money for veterans. University of Georgia Professor Moina Michael and Anna Guerin of France both came up with the idea of the artificial poppies as fundraisers while showing honor and respect for those who perished fighting for their country. Today many of these poppies are handmade by disabled veterans as part of their therapeutic rehabilitation. They are distributed across the country by the American Legion Auxiliary in exchange for donations that assist disabled or hospitalized veterans. This Memorial Day, many Americans across the country will pin a bright red poppy to their shirts as a sign of respect and honor.
The idiom “Freedom isn’t free” is never more real to us than on those days when we consider those who gave the ultimate sacrifice so that we can enjoy that long weekend spent with those we love. On Monday, May 22, why not take a moment to reflect on what Memorial Day truly represents.