Tomorrow, Monday May 25, 2020, is Memorial Day here in the United States. It’s a national holiday that honors and mourns those members of the military that died while in service to their country. It’s also common practice to decorate the graves of all those who have served in the military during our country’s history. Some folks visit cemeteries and memorials and participate in ceremonies to remember and honor the dead. I’ll take you to one of those ceremonies in this post. But first a little background.
The tradition of placing flowers and decorating the graves of fallen soldiers is an ancient practice around the world. Here in the USA, Decoration Day, now called Memorial Day, has been observed in May since after the end of the Civil War. It became a national holiday beginning in 1868 with some communities having parades of veterans and civic groups often ending at a cemetery. Some of the first Decoration Day tributes were done by women in the Southern states such as Virginia, Mississippi, and South Carolina. Northern states such as Pennsylvania, New York and Wisconsin soon followed with ceremonies after the War’s end. In 1868, the Commander of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), an organization of the veteran’s of the Union army, issued a call for a National Decoration Day to be observed annually and nationwide. The reason it was set for the end of May was that is when flowers would be in bloom in the northern part of the country. Poppy flowers have become one of the enduring symbols of Memorial Day. This is based on a poem titled “In Flanders Fields” written by a Canadian Scotsman, Lt. Colonel John McCrae after the Second Battle of Ypres during World War I. It goes like this:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
This poem always brings a tear to my eye to think of the many soldiers buried where they fell on the battlefields of France and Belgium.
As a kid growing up on a farm in rural North Dakota, the end of May was a busy farming time so our family didn’t attend Memorial Day events in our town. My father, a WWII veteran, would sometimes attend ceremonies with other members of the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW). When we moved to Madison, we learned that the nearby village of Monona held a big Memorial Day parade. As our kids grew, it became a tradition for us to attend the parade and then observe the ceremony at the Blooming Grove Cemetery. Members of the American Legion and their Auxiliary would lay wreaths honoring the war dead. Someone would recite “In Flanders Fields” followed by a 21 gun salute and taps. It was always moving and solemn with not a very large attendance.
Now on to the main point of this post. Both our father’s were WWII Navy veterans and passed away in the last several years. Both are buried at the North Dakota Veteran’s Cemetery located south of Mandan overlooking the Missouri River. Since this is the final resting place for our parents, my Traveling Partner and I plan on spending eternity in this cemetery as I am a veteran of the Army.
We’ve had the occasion to travel to North Dakota to attend a few of the Memorial Day observances at the Veteran’s Cemetery. There is typically a large crowd of attendees. The ceremony usually consists of the presentation of the colors, some music by the National Guard band, a couple of greetings from dignitaries, and a speech by a current or former member of the military.
My favorite part is when the formal event is over, members of the Native American community conduct a special ceremony honoring all veterans. This includes a drum circle and chants in the native language. It’s interesting note that since 9/11 nearly 20% of Native Americans have served in the military compared to 14% of other ethnicities. At pow wow’s, veteran’s are given the honor of leading the grand entry. I find their involvement especially moving, despite the fact they have faced discrimination and marginalization in our country.
Before and after the festivities, we visit the graves of our fathers. When possible we stop at the cemetery whenever we return to North Dakota.
About a year and half ago, my Traveling Partner’s Mother passed away and was buried with her husband. When my mother passes, she’ll be buried with my father.
Here are photos taken last winter after the annual Wreath Across America event where organizations place wreaths on graves at Veteran’s Cemeteries.
During our visits to the cemetery, I also visit the grave of my second cousin, someone I grew up with. Even though we went to different high schools, we went to the same church and our mother’s were close cousins. Merrill was drafted into the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War and was a combat veteran. After discharge, his physical and mental health suffered, I consider him a casualty of this war. I only saw him once after our military service and it was a great visit. He was doing well but died a few years later, finally at peace.
Memorial Day is also the unofficial start of summer especially for those of us living in the northern part of the country. In these uncertain and turbulent times, it’s important to take a few minutes before the peace of the summer season to think of those that “borne the battle” as simply stated by President Abraham Lincoln.
That does it for this week. Stay tuned next week for another peak into the archives.
Until then, happy virtual travels!