Like so many holiday weekends, this is one of those times when folks are happy for a chance for some fun at the beach, on the water, in the mountains or just any place to get away from it all and rest. But few have any idea why they have the time off in the first place.
Even if you know this is Memorial Day weekend, you may be wondering: what are we memorializing in this observance that began 150 years ago? (Which most of us probably didn’t know either.) Controversial as it may seem to some, it is a day to memorialize those who died in wars rather than to celebrate the victors.
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 Unknowns, The Vietnam Wall and similar memorials.
And that’s what this weekend is all about.
The observance started back in 1868 when some veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic set a day in May (when flowers would be in bloom) as a time to decorate with bouquets the graves of the dead from the Civil War, now estimated to be 750,000 Union and Confederate soldiers.
Following the requisite speeches by suitable officials, children from the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphan Home and members of the GAR, singing hymns and reciting prayers as they went, made their way through the Arlington National Cemetery strewing flowers on both Union and Confederate graves there. That was the first official Decoration Day (because of the flowers) ceremony although it was preceded by a handful of similar events, some called Memorial Day, scattered throughout the North and South where businesses closed and flags fluttered at half-mast.
As civic ceremonies marking the day have pretty much faded from the picture the appearance of the poppy after World War I has grown to symbolize the meaning of the observance which Congress made a national holiday in 1971. Meanwhile at least 642,000 additional members of the armed forces are in graves from 25 more conflicts since the Civil War, nearly 7,000 of them in 5 major engagements since 9-11.
Over the weekend, you might see an older man or woman in the uniform of some veterans organization— maybe the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion or Disabled American Veterans — or their auxiliaries handing out silk or plastic paper poppies in shopping malls or at busy traffic intersections in hopes of a donation.
Inspiration for making the poppy a symbol for the occasion came from a popular poem, “In Flanders Field,” written by a Canadian doctor, John McCrae, as a tribute to the soldiers who had died and were buried in a Belgium field during “the war to end all wars” in which he had served. The poem prompted Moina Michael, a professor at the University of Georgia, to make silk copies of the flower to sell to aid disabled veterans in her classes and their families. Utilized by the VFW since 1922, at least 10s of millions of those poppies (whose red color represents the blood shed in war) will be distributed this year to raise several hundred millions of dollars in donations that will compensate the needy veterans who make them, and help maintain state and national rehabilitation and service programs for veterans, their widows and orphans.
Any ceremony marking the day now will try to conform to the order of Maj. Gen. John A. Logan who was in charge of that first official Declaration Day observance. He directed posts under his command to: “Decorate graves with the choicest flowers of springtime.” He urged us to “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. He has continued to write for The Herald and other papers during the 26 years since he retired. He now lives in Brooksville, FL and can be reached at [email protected]