From Wreaths Across America's Executive Director, Karen Worcester

Like many holidays, the meaning of Memorial Day has become a bit vague. Just as Santa Claus and gift giving now define Christmas, Memorial Day is better known for family barbecues than for visiting cemeteries. Maybe this is because people would rather focus on happier subjects, especially as the warm weather beckons. That’s understandable. However, the military families we support have impressed upon me how important it is to remember what Memorial Day is really about: honoring those who have lost their lives while serving our country.

The holiday itself is quite old, by American standards. It actually dates to the post-Civil War era, when death had touched every community, north, and south. As a way to remember and honor soldiers on both sides who had died during the war, “Decoration Day” was established. On this day, people brought flowers and flags to their local cemeteries to decorate the gravestones of fallen soldiers.

Later, the name of the holiday was changed to Memorial Day and it was expanded to include Americans who died in any war, not just the Civil War. Unlike Veterans Day, which honors everyone, living or dead, who has served in the armed forces, Memorial Day is a day of remembrance, specifically to honor those who have fought and died in a war or conflict – those who have given the ultimate sacrifice for their country.

We believe that to truly honor our lost veterans, we must remember them as people – not as numbers or political fodder, and in a way more meaningful than sharing a post on Facebook. Real people gave their lives – for us – and this can be easy to forget. In fact, a poll in 2000 showed that only 28 percent of Americans knew what Memorial Day was for (other than being the unofficial start of summer). In response, Congress established the National Moment of Remembrance to be observed at 3 p.m. local time every Memorial Day as an act of national unity. Will you take one moment this Memorial Day to reflect on the sacrifices these brave men and women have made?

If you’d like to do more, nearly every community has a veterans’ cemetery nearby. Why not pay your respects in person? Some people bring flowers, or flags, or other mementos. But you don’t need to. One simple thing we do when we lay wreaths on graves on Wreaths Across America Day each December is to say the name of the veteran out loud. It’s been said that a person dies twice: once when they take their final breath, and later, the last time their name is spoken. By saying their name aloud, we keep their memory alive.

Many groups such as the American Gold Star Mothers, who have lost a child in service to their country, the American Legion, or Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) host Memorial Day events to honor fallen veterans. By attending these, you show your gratitude and support for our veterans. By meeting the families and friends of those who have died, you can start to understand the true nature of the sacrifices that have been made by both military and the ones who loved them. 

Another way to spend the day meaningfully is to explore history. Remember, Memorial Day honors military from all wars, so learning about the past is a way to honor veterans of previous generations. You could visit a memorial, a museum or a battlefield to learn about the veterans from wars throughout our nation’s history. By the way, you don’t need to visit Washington, D.C., to find a war memorial. There’s likely one right in your community that perhaps you didn’t even know was there.

Finally, if you know of a family who has lost someone, please say a kind word and let them know that you remember their spouse, child, sibling, parent or friend. It can mean a great deal to them just to talk with someone who remembers their loved one’s life, as well as their death.  

We seem to be at a time in history when Americans are having a hard time agreeing on anything. We’re divided in so many ways. But at the heart of it, most of us can agree on one thing: We are Americans. This Memorial Day, let’s honor those who have given their lives for the country we all love, and who have made it possible for us to live freely and peacefully together – no matter our faith, our politics or our backgrounds.

 

 

 

 

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