Memorial Day is not Veterans Day
Gram called it Decoration Day. Family members traveled from many states to be with relatives and decorate the graves of deceased military, family members and friends. This tradition, a federal holiday, happened every May 30 from 1868 until 1970. That year someone got the bright idea to make it a three-day weekend, Congress went along and the date was changed to the last Monday in May. Like most traditions, when someone messes with them — whether through the date or some other arbitrary decision — traditions go away or at least are irrevocably diminished.
John A. Logan helped organize the Grand Army of the Republic, a group of Union soldiers from the Civil War. He issued General Order number 11 in May 1868 and proclaimed a day to honor those killed in the Civil War. Hot Springs, S.D., features a tribute to General Logan as he and the GAR were driving forces behind the construction of the South Dakota State Veterans’ Home in Hot Springs. A carved stone statue of General Logan sits across from the administration building at the State Veterans’ Home. The first Decoration Day was on May 30, 1868, at Arlington National Cemetery.
As the idea of decorating the graves progressed, it became an honoring occasion for civilians also. Graves are decorated with fresh or artificial flowers or wreaths. The grave of every veteran, no matter the war nor conflict, has a small American flag displayed. One particular flower — the red poppy — is associated with Memorial Day, primarily because of this poem:
In Flanders Fields
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.
Canadian serviceman and surgeon, Dr. John McCrae, penned the poem in 1915 after he observed how the red poppies blossomed prolifically on former battlefields. He surmised that when shells were fired and landed upon the earth, the ground was disturbed by the shells. That brought the seeds up in the soil where they could get sunshine and rain which helped the flowers to grow. In the Flanders Field American Cemetery and Memorial in Belgium rests 368 of the American military who died freeing Belgium during World War I. Forty-three men from the battles are still listing as missing.
Today red, artificial poppies, assembled by veterans, are sold to raise money for veterans’ projects.
Veterans’ Day is to honor living veterans; Memorial Day is for military and civilians who are deceased. ❖
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