A special remembrance episode for all who’ve given their lives in the service of their country, including a reading of “In Flanders Fields.” We will not forget!
If you’d prefer to read rather than listen, scroll down to find a transcript.
Transcript of Episode 15: Memorial Day
Welcome to A Sparkling Vintage Life, where we talk about all things vintage and celebrate the grace and charm of an earlier era. It’s Memorial Day here in the United States, celebrated on the last Monday of May. Unlike Armed Forces Day, which celebrates all who currently serve in the Armed Forces, or Veterans’ Day, which recognizes all veterans, Memorial Day honors those who have died in the course of serving their country in the armed forces.
Other countries have similar celebrations honoring their war dead. I’d love to hear about them. This episode focuses on the remembrance in the U.S.
Several men in my family tree have served I the military, but the only one I know of who died in a war was my grandfather’s brother. He was Corporal John F. Lamont of Company F-132nd Infantry, and he was killed in action on October 9, 1918, in the Argonne. Those are just facts I discovered while researching the family history. I wish I knew more about John. Maybe over time I will be able to learn more. I would love to know what he was like, what he looked like, what kind of personality he had, how he enjoyed spending his time before his life was cruelly snuffed out.
Families and friends of the deceased have decorated graves since time immemorial, but Memorial Day–an official day to honor those who gave their lives in military service–dates from the 1860s, right after the American Civil War. There is some controversy over when and where the first official Memorial Day actually took place, with Columbus, Georgia; Columbus, Missouri; and Waterloo, New York being among the possible launch spots (newspaper misinformation is blamed for the confusion–‘twas every thus). Whatever the origin, on April 26, 1866, the graves of Confederate casualties of the Civil War were decorated with flowers, hence the name Decoration Day. Some Southern women were generous enough to also place flowers on the graves of Union soldiers buried in that region. This gracious gesture made the news, and the custom spread northward.
While there were variations seen across different regions of the country and different towns and cities, a typical Decoration Day celebration including a gathering of the townspeople at the local cemetery, where flowers would be placed on the graves of deceased servicemen. Often these flowers were placed by young girls dressed in white with red and blue sashes. As each serviceman’s name was called, a bouquet was placed on his or her grave. There might have been a church service, or a parade, and/or a potluck picnic. Almost certainly, sometime over the course of the day, a trumpeter would play Taps, that sweet, mournful bugle call. Overall Decoration Day was a solemn event without the joyous overtones of, say, the Fourth of July.
Today, people still visit cemeteries on Memorial Day. Sometimes there are still public ceremonies, but it seems more common these days to visit as family groups or individuals, and many people don’t go at all.
One tradition that has endured is the wearing of poppies. In 1915, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, a physician with the Canadian Expeditionary Force who cared for many wounded during World War I, wrote the poem, “In Flanders Fields.” He wrote it while seated in the back of an ambulance near the Battle of Ypres in the Flanders region of Belgium. Its opening lines refer to the fields of bright-red poppies that grew among the soldiers’ graves in that area.
In 1918, inspired by the poem, YWCA worker Moina Mitchell attended a YWCA conference wearing a silk poppy pinned to her coat and distributed over two dozen more to others present. In 1920, the National American Legion adopted it as their official symbol of remembrance. Today crepe-paper poppies are sold by several patriotic groups as a means of raising donations to benefit disabled veterans.
In 1868, Decoration Day was moved from April to May 30, so that chilly Northerners would also have some flowers to place on graves. In time the name changed to Memorial Day and expanded to honor those killed in all wars, not just the Civil War. The date remained May 30 until 1971, when the it was changed to the last Monday of May in accordance with the federal Uniform Monday Holiday Act (although a handful of hardy Southerners still cling to April 26).
Though some may resist smudging a perfect spring weekend with somber thoughts, I think it’s important to remember and to grieve. So many young men and women have given their lives for our freedom. This weekend, let’s each take at least a few moments between barbecues and ball games to remember those who gave their lives for their country and honor the sacrifice they’ve made. Maybe buy a poppy to wear, or have your children make some out of red crepe paper. If you know of a particular soldier, sailor, or marine, perhaps someone in your family or town or circle of friends and acquaintances, tell their stories to your children. so that the memories will live on.
And thank you, Uncle John.
Today’s grace note:
In Flanders Fields
by Lt. John McCrae
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.