The idea of Memorial Day started officially in 1868 when veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic set a day in May (when flowers would be in bloom) as a time to decorate with bouquets the graves of the 215,000 dead from the Civil War. It was called Decoration Day.
Not until after the first World War was the event designated to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice in all of our nation’s wars (634,597 in 20 conflicts since the Civil War), and it was not until 1971 that Congress declared Memorial Day to be a national holiday to be observed on the last Monday in May.
There are few civic ceremonies marking the day anymore, but most local VFW, American Legion or DAV (Disabled American Veterans) groups will have a ceremony of lowering flags to half-staff, patriotic speeches and prayers.
Some folks will go to cemeteries to place flowers on graves. Throughout the weekend, veterans from those organizations and their auxiliaries will be offering red poppies to passersby, mostly in shopping areas.
Those poppies, red symbolizing the blood shed in war, are a tradition promoted by the VFW since 1922. Seven years earlier, Moina Michael, a professor at the University of Georgia, vowed to encourage people to wear poppies in memory of those who died in Europe during World War I.
The idea came to the University of Georgia professor in response to the popular poem In Flanders Fields, by Canadian doctor Lt. Col. John McCrae, who had served in that conflict.
Because she was teaching a class of disabled veterans and saw their need of help, Michael started selling silk poppies. contributing the money to help such vets. For her efforts, the U.S. Post Office dedicated a 3-cent stamp to her in 1948, four years after her death.
Around the country last year, veteran organizations distributed 10 million Buddy Poppies made by disabled men and women veterans in hospitals and other facilities, reported Randi Law, communications manager for the national office of the VFW. Donations from those receiving the traditional red flowers amounted to $13 million, she said.
That money compensates the veterans who assemble the poppies, provides financial assistance in maintaining state and national rehabilitation and service programs and partially supports the VFW National Home for Orphans and Widows of our nation’s veterans.
These activities are planned to conform to the order of Maj. Gen. John A. Logan who was in charge of the first official observance of Decoration Day. He directed that posts under his command decorate graves “with the choicest flowers of springtime.”
He urged, “Let no neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.”
Adon Taft, a veteran of the 100th Infantry Division in WWII, was a reporter for the Miami Herald for 48 years. He lives in Brooksville.
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.
Lt. Col. John McCrae, 1915