After the Civil War, the individual tradition of decorating soldiers' graves became a May event for all. It was known as Decoration Day. Flags and flowers honoring the Union and Rebel dead appeared on the vast number of graves from that war. Sometime in the late 1800s, the name changed to Memorial Day, but that didn't become commonly used until after WWII. Eventually, it became just another 3 day weekend for most people as the number of people directly affected by war faded into history..
To be clear - Memorial Day is not Veterans Day. The former honors the dead, the latter celebrates the living. I still have memories of going to the cemetery in the small town where I lived for the solemn playing of taps, and the shocking loudness of the 21 gun salute.
My family did not suffer the death of any member in any war. I have three uncles who all served in the Navy during WWII. They came from a tiny crossroads in the middle of the forest just 20 miles south of the Canadian border, and went off to fight in a war that threatened an entire continent they'd only read about in school. Given their limited education in a one-room school house, they were drafted as grunts, cannon fodder for monster that needed feeding and had a voracious appetite for young lives.
One uncle loved to tell his story of his close brush with death. He was in the Battle of the Bulge, although I don't remember if his story occurs there. He was in the trenches in the middle of battle, and mother nature came calling. What do you do? There was no latrine to go to; leaving one's position to do so would have put his fellow soldiers in harm's way. So he squatted where he was. Just as he squatted, a German bullet ripped a hole through the top of his helmet. Had he not had the need to evacuate his bowels just then, he would have caught that bullet in the face, and would have gone home in a box.
Instead he lived to get married and have 4 kids - my cousins. My other two uncles did as well (two cousins each).
He died 11 years ago, and was buried with some ceremony, including taps and a flag-draped coffin. One of my other uncles died on Saturday. The list of WWII vets grows smaller every day.
There are plenty of graves to decorate on this day. I am reminded every time I drive past Arlington National Cemetery. Looking at the number of those killed in battle in the major wars in our country's history since the Civil War:
- Civil War: 625,00
- WWI: 116,516
- WWII: 405,399
- Korea: 36,516
- Viet Nam: 58,209
- Afghanistan: 2,031
- Iraq: 4,487
While I have no direct (or extended) family members who died in service to their country, I have found while doing genealogical research that my ancestors fought in WWI, the Civil War, and the Revolutionary War. I don't know where they are buried, but it is likely nowhere near where I live. Not all of the war dead are buried in U.S. Cemeteries. Some were buried where they fell. The U.S. cemeteries in Ardennes and Normandy are examples. Their sacrifice is honored by the countries we saved.
So today we will visit Arlington and pay tribute to those who young men and women I never knew and never met who died so that we may all continue to live life as we know it, to have our freedom of speech and press (which I abuse with this blog from time to time). I will be wearing a red poppy in honor of those who have fallen.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.
- In Flanders Fields by John McCrae,