What is Memorial Day?
Since 1968 the last Monday in May has been an official federal holiday, and the whole weekend is popularly considered the start of summer and time for the first of the season’s outdoor gatherings and picnics with family and friends.
But why are there often public parades with marching bands, lots of uniforms and lots of American flags? Many families visit cemeteries and leave flowers. Some people pin a bright red poppy made of paper to their clothes. What is this all about? And how is it different from Veterans Day in November?
Basically, Memorial Day is a call to remember and honor the men and women who died while serving in the U.S. military at home and abroad. There have been a lot of them, starting with a shocking 620,000 who died in the 1860s during the Civil War. Not only do their families and friends feel the loss of these loved ones, but the nation officially honors the fact that they died while serving under the dangerous conditions of armed conflict.
Veterans Day is a holiday that acknowledges the many non-fatal sacrifices of active duty, National Guard, Reserve troops and their family members, recognizing that active duty in combat zones can inflict life-changing physical and psychological injuries that, although not fatal, can be severe and long-lasting. Both holidays have important cultural value.
The idea of Memorial Day arose spontaneously in communities in both the North and South right after the Civil War, with family, friends and returning veterans decorating soldiers’ graves with flowers. Within three years, National Decoration Day was established, and the first annual May 30 ceremony honored both Union and Confederate graves in Arlington National Cemetery.
After World War I, the name was changed to Memorial Day and now includes honoring all military personnel who die in U.S. wars or conflicts at home and abroad, and a solemn ceremony of the president placing a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery.
What about the poppies? They came in after World War I. The horrors of that war took a greater human toll than any previous conflict, with 8.5 million soldiers dead of battlefield injuries or disease, and the absolute ravishing of the landscape of Western Europe.
Despite the devastation, a common red poppy survived and somehow managed to keep growing in battlefields of France and Flanders (northern Belgium). In 1915, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, a Canadian brigade surgeon reeling from the carnage of the Second Battle of Ypres, took hope from patches of these bright red blooms peeking through the havoc and wrote the poem “In Flanders Field,” in which he channeled the voice of fallen soldiers buried under those tenacious poppies. It became one of the most famous works of art to emerge from WWI, and both the poem and the wearing of a red poppy are now widespread symbols of remembrance.
How does Charlotte remember and honor those who have died in US military service? We have both ongoing and periodic reminders to help us remember: a World War II stone memorial on Town Green and a World War I stone memorial at the corner of Ferry and Greenbush roads, and special observances on Memorial Day, like flying the U.S. flag on Town Green at half-mast.
For years, Charlotte Grange has placed flags on veterans’ graves in Charlotte cemeteries. Many individuals and families have their own private ways of remembering and honoring.
This year, Charlotte Grange will hold a public Memorial Day Remembrance Ceremony on the Town Green to speak the names of those with Charlotte connections who died in conflict while in military service, recently or in the more distant past. Speaking their names is a powerful reminder that they were all individual people just like us — with family and friends, hopes, dreams, loves and commitments, fears, talents and frailties. Service to their country put them in harm’s way, and they died because of it.
The Grange will draw on public records for names and also encourage community members to contribute names to be included in this Remembrance Ceremony. Contact [email protected] if you have names to include or if you can help with the reading out of names. Veterans and their families are especially invited to participate. Watch for the time of the Remembrance Ceremony and other details in The Charlotte News later in May.
Linda Hamilton is a member of the Charlotte Grange.