Memorial Day: what’s it all about?
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By Missy Klatt
If you thought it was all about a long weekend, the start of summer and barbeques you’ve totally missed the point of this very special holiday. To put it simply Memorial Day is to remember those military personal who died while serving our country.
We honor all veterans on Veterans Day which takes place annually on November 11th. For those who are currently serving in the military their day of recognition is National Armed Forces Day which is on the third Saturday of May (May 20th this year) which is part of Armed Forces week.
Memorial Day was originally known as Decoration Day because of the tradition of decorating the graves with flowers, wreaths and flags and was first observed in 1866 after the Civil War ended. The Civil War claimed more lives than any other conflict in history and this is what prompted the start of the country’s first national cemeteries.
On May 5, 1868, General John A. Logan, leader of an organization for Northern Civil War veterans, called for a national day of remembrance later in May. May 30th was chosen as the date as there were no particular battles fought on that day. On that first Decoration day 5000 people came out to Arlington National Cemetery to hear a speech from General James Garfield. They also helped decorate 20,000 graves of soldiers from the Civil War buried there.
Fast forward to the end of World War I, the next major conflict that the US was involved with and “Decoration Day” was now honoring those soldiers who died in WWI as well. Going forward Memorial Day is to honor all soldiers and military personnel who lost their lives in all wars.
In 1938 Congress recognized Decoration Day as a federal holiday. Sometime after World War II the name gradually changed to Memorial Day but the federal government didn’t officially adopt that name until 1967. Then in 1968 congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act which put Memorial Day as the last Monday in May instead of specific date (May 30th). It wasn’t until 1971 that the three day weekend for federal employees went into full effect.
Coins on headstones
Have you ever been to a cemetery and spotted coins sitting on top of a headstone? Well they are there to honor the veteran buried there and shouldn’t be removed. According to the Wounded Warrior Project website, “Placing a coin on headstones of a service member or veteran is a show of respect and honor, as well as letting the deceased service member’s family know someone was there, but the denomination of the coins each has a distinct and significant meaning.”
Here is the meaning behind the different coins: A penny: This means someone has visited the grave. A nickel: This signifies that the visitor served with the deceased service member at boot camp. A dime: A dime means the visitor and deceased service member served together at some point. A quarter: This coin is left by someone who was physically with the service member when he or she died.
According to an article by the Department of Military Affairs, the custom of leaving coins with the deceased can be traced back to the Roman Empire. Coins were placed into the mouth of fallen soldiers to pay for passage and protection across the River Styx, which separates the world of the living from the world of the dead.
In Navy mythology, coins were placed under the mast of a ship to pay the “ferryman” for safe transport to the afterlife in the event sailors died at sea.
The custom gained popularity in the United States during the Vietnam War as a way to honor the fallen during a time political divide over the controversial war. The coins were a way to quietly honor service members and communicate a message of respect for family members.
The Wounded Warrior Project website goes on to say that after a while the coins that are on these headstones are collected and used for the upkeep of the cemetaries or to help bury homeless veterans. They sugest that if you are going to visit a cemetary this Memorial Day to bring some coins along as a small gesture to honor those who served.
They also suggest five other ways to honor the fallen this Memorial Day:
• Attend an event or parade: Check the Tribune for a list of events at the various cemetaries in our area.
• Fly the U.S. flag. According to the VA, on Memorial Day, the flag should be flown at half-staff from sunrise until noon, then raised to the top of the staff until sunset.
• Wear or display a red poppy. The colorful flower is a symbol of remembrance that dates back to World War I. The tradition got its start thanks to a poem by WWI brigade surgeon John McCrae. Veterans of Foreign Wars conducted its first nationwide poppy distribution ahead of Memorial Day in 1922, a tradition that continues today.
• Post a Tribute: Honor a late veteran you know by posting a tribute to the Veterans Legacy Memorial. The VA-connected website is “dedicated to the memory of the nearly 4.5 million veterans interred in VA national cemeteries.” The site allows visitors to search for a specific veteran and leave photos, tributes, and memories in their honor.
• Spend time with family and friends. What better way to honor those who fought and died for our freedoms than enjoying the moments their sacrifice provided us? Sharing the day with those you love and care about the most is a great way to say “thank you” to these fallen heroes who can’t with their families and friends so that we can be with ours.
If you do visit a cemetery this Memorial Day or any day for that matter, you should respect where you are and follow some simple rules of cemetery etiquette. The National Parks Sevice lays out the following rules:
• Follow cemetery rules. Most have a sign near the entrance stating hours, rules about decorations, etc. Obey these rules. Rules about decorations serve to make sure the cemetery doesn’t collect too much debris that the caretakers need to clean up. Flowers and other things can blow in the wind. It would be especially nice if any trash along the way was picked up, regardless of who left it.
• Be sympathetic. Do not play loud music in cars, with the windows down, for everyone to hear.
• Keep children in ‘check.’ No running, yelling, or rolling around on the ground. This is not a place for childhood games. Don’t let them play on any of the monuments. While it is good to get children used to paying respects at a cemetery, they often don’t fully understand the meaning of everything in the cemetery.
• Do their best to not walk over the graves. Common sense leads you to know the basic shape of a grave; walk in between the headstones, and don’t stand on top of a burial place.
• Try not to remain in the cemetery after dark. Most cemeteries are open from dawn to dusk.
• Don’t litter. This creates extra work for the caretakers, and shows disrespect to the other families who come to mourn their loved ones. “Pack your trash” is a good rule of thumb: take your refuse with you when you go, or put it in trash receptacles.
• Leash your pets. When you bring your pets, be sure to clean up after them. *Check to make sure the cemetery allows pets first.
• Follow the roadways and don’t drive on the grass. Drive slowly and obey any traffic signs posted in the cemetery. Be careful to avoid any people since they might be upset and not paying complete attention to where they are going.
• Be respectful. Keep the volume of voices down, and don’t use offensive language.
• Don’t be overly friendly when talking to strangers. Other visitors may want to be alone.
• Don’t touch any monuments or gravestones. They are very meaningful to the families who placed them there. Some older memorials might be in disrepair and might fall apart under the slightest touch.
• Don’t take photos of other people or other funerals. This is a very private time for people. It’s best to steer clear of any funerals occurring, and don’t get in the way of funeral processions.