Keep Memorial Day – Honor Our Fallen Heroes

Memorial Day is just around the corner and for many Americans it is about a three-day weekend and the “unofficial” start of summer—barbecues, swimming, camping and lake trips.  However, Memorial Day is more than all of that. Since 1868, it has been a national holiday dedicated to the men and women who have died while serving in a branch of the United States military. Learn more about this national holiday that memorializes our fallen heroes and how to respectfully honor them with flags and tribute flowers.

History

Prior to 1971, Memorial Day was celebrated on May 30th regardless of what day of the week it fell on; it was also known as Decoration Day. The very first Decoration Day was celebrated on May 30, 1868, when General James A. Garfield gave a remembrance speech to thousands of onlookers at Arlington National Cemetery in memory of those lost during the Civil War. [1]  However, before the Civil War, women’s groups had been decorating the graves of fallen soldiers with flowers.  The name Memorial Day would be used with or in place of Decoration Day over the next decades, and after World War I, the day came to honor veterans from all wars, not only the Civil War. In 1971, Congress declared Memorial Day the official name for the national holiday and set the last Monday in May for observing a day of “National Mourning.”

Poppies have long been a national symbol of remembrance and hope beginning with the end of World War I when the bright red flowers bloomed on war-torn battlefields. The flower became associated with Memorial Day in 1915 when Moina Michael, inspired by John McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Fields,” [2] penned the poem, “We Shall Keep the Faith” [3] and vowed to always wear a red poppy as a symbol of remembrance for those who served in the war.

The true meaning of Decoration or Memorial Day has gradually been lost or mixed with other holiday traditions. Since the early 20th century, Memorial Day gradually became an occasion for more general expressions of remembering loved ones, as people visit and decorate the graves of their deceased relatives in church and city cemeteries, whether they served in the military or not.  Even though this is not the intention of Memorial Day, it does make for beautiful cemeteries as fresh or artificial flowers and wreaths adorn the graves. When the 1971 Congressional act established a three-day Memorial Day weekend, it also became vacation time for many and opportunity for businesses to cash in on Memorial Day savings.

Ways to Correctly Observe Memorial Day [4]

While there are dozens of ways one can honor America’s fallen on Memorial Day, here’s some ideas to get you started:

  • Wear a Memorial Day button or poppy.
  • Visit cemeteries and place flags or flowers on the graves of our fallen heroes.
  • Fly the American flag at half mask until noon.  Per the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the flag is to be flown at half-staff from sunrise until noon only, then raised briskly to the top of the staff until sunset, in honor of our fallen heroes. This goes for all flags on government buildings, grounds, and naval vessels, as well as flags flown by private citizens.
  • Observe a National Moment of Remembrance at 3 pm.  The National Moment of Remembrance Act, signed by President Bill Clinton in 2000, asks all Americans to observe a national moment of remembrance at 3 p.m. local time on the afternoon of Memorial Day.
  • Attend local Memorial Day services, parades, concerts sponsored by VFWs, American, Elks, Boy/Girl Scouts, government, business or educational groups, or religious services of choice.

Honor with Cemetery or Grave Marker Flags

Check in advance if a local group is planning a flag-placing event.  If a flag-placing event has been planned, extra hands may be welcomed.

  • Correctly place flags.  Flags placed at graves should be erected in a uniform matter, usually one foot, centered and in front of the headstone or grave marker according to the Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Cemetery Administration.
  • Use correct flag types. Cemetery or grave marker flags of appropriate size (8×12” or 12X18”) should be mounted on a wooden dowel of appropriate diameter and length.  Flags should be made of a durable material and exhibit no fraying or wear.  Flags made from fabrics which fray must have a rolled hem for more durability.
  • Be respectful and observe US Flag Codes. [5]
  • Place and remove flags at the appropriate times.  Cemetery or grave marker flags can usually be placed three days prior to the holiday and remain up to one week afterward. Make sure to check with the cemetery director to determine when to place and remove the flag.

Honor with Flowers or Floral Tributes

Cemeteries usually have rules and regulations for flowers and floral arrangements.  If you are not familiar with the rules, check before making a purchase to avoid disappointment. 

  • Choose hardy, long-lasting flowers. Flowers that are currently in-season and sourced locally will last longer than those that have been imported from another country. Chrysanthemums and carnations are both known for being hardy and long-lasting, even in outdoor conditions.
  • Place cut flowers in floral foam or a vase. A bouquet laid on the grave will not last long without water. Cut flowers in a well-soaked floral foam or a cemetery-approved vase with water will ensure that the flowers look beautiful for as long as possible.
  • Choose a potted plant. A correctly chosen potted plant may create less of an impact than cut flowers, but will last for a very long time.
  • Plant flowers on the grave. Some cemeteries allow planting of flowers on or around a grave. Peonies are a common choice when allowed as they are often in bloom for Memorial Day. 
  • Artificial flowers.  High quality silk flowers can look stunning, add color and beauty for a very long time, and require very little maintenance.
  • Be sure that any and all tributes are anchored properly.  Wind can be a real menace to grave-site tributes.  Some artificial arrangements come with wires or cones that can be poked into the soil.  Headstone saddles are designed to clamp on the top of the stone and hold arrangements in place, but may not be ample for our Midwest wind; the metal arms of the saddle have been criticized for not being strong enough to clamp tightly. A third option is a headstone flower anchor. The flower anchor is designed to be used on saddle arrangements to secure them to the stone, but it could easily be used to secure a wreath, a cross, or other style of arrangements.  Cemetery rules should always be observed.

Yes, Memorial Day has come to signify the “unofficial” start of summer as well as to memorize veterans and loved ones. In whatever way one chooses to observe it, do take time to keep Memorial Day and remember and honor the fallen heroes who made it all possible. 

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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