By Charlton Stanley, Weekend Contributor
As I wrote on this blog a year ago, Memorial Day is the misunderstood “holiday.” Many people confuse Memorial Day with Veteran’s Day. Veteran’s Day began as Armistice Day, commemorating the Armistice signed at the eleventh hour, eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918. In our political and military naivete, the Armistice was meant to be the end of the, “War To End All Wars.” Two decades later it started all over again. Veteran’s Day is on November 11 in the US. Veteran’s Day is meant to honor those who served in the military in both peacetime and war, both living and dead.
Memorial Day has a history predating Armistice Day by a half century. On May May 5, 1868, three years after the end of the Civil War, Decoration Day was established. It was named Decoration Day because the day was set aside for the living to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers. May 30 was chosen as Decoration Day because flowers would be in bloom all over the country. The tradition somehow spread to honor non-veterans as well. As a youngster, I remember churches and communities where we lived celebrating Decoration Day by placing flowers on graves in all the local cemeteries. I remember attending some of these solemn rituals as a child,. I helped out the adults by placing at least one flower on each grave. Every grave needed at least one flower. It was important to decorate the graves of those who had no relatives left, otherwise, there would be no remembrance of them. The flower was a token of remembrance, even if we didn’t know who they were. Why? Because every life needs to be remembered and honored. In 1971, Memorial Day was established by an Act of Congress. Officially, Memorial Day differs somewhat from Decoration Day as I knew it as a youngster, because it was meant by Congress to remember those who served the country in uniform and have now passed through that mysterious veil.
Now? Nothing says “honor the dead” quite like a mattress sale.
The first official Memorial Day observance was 30 May 1868. On that day, flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. Every year until 1971, Memorial Day was observed on May 30. In 1971, the National Holiday Act of 1971 was passed, making Memorial Day part of a three-day weekend. When Memorial Day became just another long weekend with a day off from work, it began to lose its meaning as a day of remembrance and reflection.
In 2002, the Veterans of Foreign Wars issued an official proclamation, which stated in part, “Changing the date merely to create three-day weekends has undermined the very meaning of the day. No doubt, this has contributed greatly to the general public’s nonchalant observance of Memorial Day.”
Beginning in 1999, Senator Dan Inouye introduced a bill to restore the traditional day of observance of Memorial Day back to May 30 instead of “the last Monday in May”. The same year, Representative Jim Gibbons introduced a bill in the house saying the same thing. Both bills were referred to Committee where they died. Every year until his death Senator Inouye re-introduced the bill. The mattress sale lobby is too powerful for something so trivial as grieving for our dead.
The current practice in military cemeteries is to place a flag next to each stone. Families and loved ones still place flowers on graves, but those numbers dwindle as survivors age and pass away themselves.
Out of war, grief and misery, there has come great poetry. Some sad, some funny, some reflective. No poem has captured the spirit and meaning of remembering the dead as one that flowed from the pen of Lt. Col. John McRae, MD. A physician from Ontario, Canada, Dr. John McRae was caught in the 1915 attacks when the Germans began using shells with chlorine gas. McRae somehow survived. He helped treat the wounded. He helped bury the dead, including his close friend, Lieutenant Alex Helmer . Some time after that, McRae noticed poppies growing among the graves. Due in part to the poem Dr. McRae wrote, the poppy has come to symbolize the dead from the battlefield. And thanks to John McRae, almost everyone knows of Flanders Fields. However, all too many of those born in the last fifty or sixty years don’t really understand what or where Flanders Fields are.
We have all seen the old veterans, standing outside stores and on street corners, selling little red paper flowers. The petals of a real poppy look like tissue paper. A charitable organization in Belgium began selling little paper poppies to support war orphans after the “War To End All Wars.” It wasn’t long before American service organizations picked up the tradition. These little red paper poppies offered by old soldiers became a way of helping their brother veterans, many of whom were disabled or dying. One veteran told a reporter, “We used to hand out little cards with each poppy, telling about Colonel McRae and why we had the little flowers, but they’d take the poppies and toss the paper. So we stopped giving them out. Most don’t know.”
Lt. Col. John McRae, MD wrote this poem on 3 May 1915 while sitting on the back of a field ambulance at Ypres, France. It was the day after he had just buried his good friend, Lt. Helmer. John McRae himself died in January 1918 of pneumonia. He had been working non-stop, and his command was the No. 3 Canadian General Hospital (McGill) at Boulogne. Although the history books articles are vague, one has to wonder if his premature death at the age of 45 was due at least in part to the gas and fatigue. His immune system must have been terribly weakened. He is buried in Wimereux Cemetery near Boulogne. He did not live long enough to see Armistice Day and the end of the war.
IN FLANDERS FIELDS
by John McRae
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.
The video below is Steve McDonald singing a parent’s lament, “Live On My Warrior Son.” The images are from the cemeteries in Flanders, Belgium.
This weekend blog post is dedicated to my youngest son.