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Disease Impacts Holiday

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Adon Taft


It was diseases rather than bullets that made the Civil War the most deadly of America’s armed conflicts out of which came Memorial Day, the holiday we celebrate Monday. Out of the 750,000 casualties, five died from dysentery, typhoid, pneumonia, malaria, measles or tuberculosis for every three who died from wounds.

Now a single disease — the coronavirus — may end (at least temporarily) traditional ways of observing the day that honors all the patriotic men and women who have given their lives fighting for their country. That includes at least 650,000 additional members of the armed forces in graves from about 25 more conflicts since the Civil War, around 7,000 of them in 5 major engagements since 9-11.

Coronavirus shutdown rules in states like New York, California, Wisconsin, Maryland and Missouri have prompted the Department of Veteran Affairs to ban groups of Girl and Boy Scouts from gathering in VA cemeteries to place American flags on the graves of veterans as has been their tradition for decades. 

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Individual families of veterans still are allowed to visit grave sites.

Also in question because of the pandemic health protocols, is the tradition (since World War 1)  of members of Veterans’ organizations standing on street corners or in shopping malls offering artificial poppies for support of programs aiding hospitalized veterans and others.

No matter how you feel about war in general or any particular war, most Americans feel obligated to somehow honor those men and women who gave their lives to protect and uphold their country. Consequently, the Tomb of the Unknown, the Vietnam Wall and similar memorials.

The Civil War itself remains controversial but the holiday it spawned to honor those who have died for their country should not be. 

It was May 30, 1868, and flowers were beginning to bloom when the first official observance of what became the holiday took place. Veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic and children from the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphan Home, singing hymns and saying prayers as they went, made their way through the Arlington National Cemetery “decorating” both Union and Confederate graves with flowers. So it first was called Decoration Day.

Similar local ceremonies had sprung up throughout the North and South. But it was not until 1971 that Congress declared Memorial Day to be a national holiday honoring those who have died in service in any of our wars. It is to be observed on the last Monday of May.

Today, civic ceremonies marking the day have pretty much faded from the picture. The symbolic poppies, representing the blood shed by fallen buddies, are wilting with the veterans organizations that sponsored them and may suffer the death kiss from the coronavirus. Perhaps Memorial Day is destined be, like so many other holidays, just a day at the beach or in the mountains.

Let us hope that we never forget the order of Maj. Gen. John A. Logan  who was in charge of that first ceremony in Arlington Cemetery:

“Decorate graves with the choicest flowers of springtime….Let no neglect, 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 republic.”


(Adon Taft was for 48 years a reporter, editor and columnist for The Miami Herald. In retirement, he continues to write for The Herald and other major newspapers.  He now lives in Birmingham, AL and can be reached at [email protected].)


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