Memorial Day has often been a tough sell for me with “happy” in front of it. The observance of Memorial Day traces its roots to Decoration Day, which started when family members and the communities would tend to and decorate the graves of fallen soldiers. As a combat veteran, this is not so much a celebration as it is a reflection and solemn occasion to remember those that have given all of themselves to those rights and freedoms we hold so dear. It is unlike Armed Forces Day, also recognized in May, which honors all those that are still in uniform. Or Veterans Day, which is Nov 11, that celebrates all those that served in the military through history. For those families that have lost someone or those battle buddies that lost a brother or sister of combat, it holds more of a meaning than a day off to barbecue and celebrate. You will notice above the word “observed” and not “celebrated” was used to describe Memorial Day. Many will say “Thank you for your service,” or “We gather for this Memorial Day Celebration,” and while many veterans will say “You are welcome” or “Thank you” in return, remember that this day is not about that veteran in front of you, but all of those that came before and were lost.
The origin of Memorial Day, which was once known as Decoration Day, observed on the last Monday in May, has no real moment in time when it started, though there are those that can mark these occasions back to following the Revolutionary War. In the 1880s, the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) put out the first literature on the traditions of Memorial Day, which at the time was celebrated on various days throughout the country. It was not until 1882 that it was first called Memorial Day; however, it was not until after WWII that Memorial Day became a more accepted phrase than Decoration Day, and would not become an official name by federal law in Congress until 1967. At this point, it was still celebrated on different days in May, until 1971, when designated as the last Monday in May.
The tradition can be found in many cultures around the world and is heavily respected in Europe, where communities still mass gather in areas that have graves honoring American veterans. One such cemetery is Flanders Field and Memorial in Belgium. It is near this area that many believe that John McCrae got his inspiration for his famous poem “In Flanders Field” talking about the poppies, which we call Buddy Poppies and use as the flower of remembrance for those that have perished in war. You will see many veteran service organizations conduct Buddy Poppy drives to assist veterans and their families in need. Originally, Buddy Poppies were distributed around Memorial Day, but it is now a year-round program that has been established to honor the mottos of such organizations like the Veterans of Foreign Wars, “To honor the dead, by helping the living.”
Many smaller communities still hold this tradition of visiting local veteran cemeteries and graves, and many people will gather at the national cemeteries for Memorial Day observations in small towns across the country; this task is mainly taken up by veteran organizations like the Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion, American Veterans and other veteran service organizations, as well as active-duty military personnel and various other organizations who assist, like the Scouts, ROTC cadets, and other civic organizations.
The Saturday before or on a day designated by their local leaders, these organizations gather to place flags on the graves of the fallen men and women who died protecting this country. Because veterans service organizations have dealt with a lot of loss over the years, in many cases dying from injuries and illnesses they have brought home from war, this has also marked a time where these organization have joined together in service to call out the names of those lost over the last year, as a way to honor those that have continued to fight the battles and service the communities after they returned home.
If you are honored to be able to join a veterans’ group on Memorial Day weekend to place flags, as you go around you may see coins on top of the grave stone, and wonder what they mean. These coins reflect on those that have visited the sites’ relationship to that veteran.
A penny means you visited (this can be a friend, veteran, family member or just someone paying tribute to that veteran).
The others are reserved for those veterans that have had a personal connection to that fallen veteran.
A nickel means you and the deceased veteran trained at boot camp together.
A dime means you and the deceased veteran served together in some capacity.
A quarter is very significant because it means you were there when that veteran died.
The tradition of the coins though can be traced back to Roman Empire, where soldiers would insert the coin into the mouth of a fallen comrade so that they could cross the River Styx into the afterlife, would become common during the Vietnam War. Due to political divide in the country over the war, leaving a coin was seen as a way of letting a family know you visited their fallen soldier, avoiding any possible uncomfortable conversation about the war. At national cemeteries, these coins are gathered monthly to help with the cost of cemetery maintenance, the cost of military burials, and to care for indigent soldiers.
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