Monday, May 26, 2014

Memorial Day Traditions

My earliest memory of Memorial Day was going to the cemetery to place flowers on graves. It always made me feel just a little bit weird to realize that in the ground beneath my feet lay all that remained of a human body. Since I didn’t have x-ray vision, I imagined that mummified bodies lay in air-tight coffins. When we visited the old cemeteries where some of the graves were sunken, I carefully avoided those areas fearful that I might fall through.

I always noticed the American flags, but most of the graves we visited were family and not necessarily military. Sometimes we would run into other family members who were placing plastic floral arrangements on graves. Then, it was a time to enjoy seeing the living.

It seems it was usually hot, and shade is hard to come by in most cemeteries. Often a table is set up where you could make donations for the upkeep. Nobody likes to see overgrown brushy cemeteries. The old cemetery where my great-grandparents are buried is usually cleared by family members. I saw some people on Facebook planning a time to work on it since it wasn’t done this year.

Most people celebrate life on Memorial Weekend with picnics. The red, white, and blue is the only thing that says Memorial Day more than grilled hotdogs and hamburgers.

For the last nine years I have visited the Missouri Veterans Cemetery in Higginsville for their Memorial Day Services. Although several artificial arrangements will be placed on graves, the cemetery rules call for cut flowers. Flowers are usually easy to find, but  it is a challenge to find a plastic (unbreakable) vase to put them in. This year, I lucked out. I bought a dozen roses and found a clear plastic container. I decorated it with patriotic duck tape and with some red ribbon. I always like to put Jim’s name on the arrangement I take, but this year it suddenly occurred to me to put his picture too. I printed out a shipping label, covered it with clear packing tape. I was pleased with the results.

This year, my sister-in-law Ginger and my great-niece made the trip with me. We stopped at McDonald’s and arrived at the cemetery a mere twenty minutes before the scheduled start time. We were directed to park near the new columbarium. We followed the sidewalk, crossed the bridge, and made it to the original columbarium just in time for the services to begin. The special guest speaker, Senator David Pearce, talked about how families had put special inscriptions on the stones. He began to read a few of them and one was “Rest High on That Mountain”—Jim’s stone.

Mayor Bill Kolas, Higginsville, spoke about how the traditions of Memorial Day has changed. Memorial Day used to be the signal that it was okay to wear white shoes. Of course, in today’s world, we wear white shoes when we feel like it. Instead of being “Decoration Day” to honor the fallen, for some people it’s all about picnics and sports. He talked about how school children no longer learn the history of World War I, or World War II—how they’ve never learned about Pearl Harbor, Normandy, Iwo Jima, Okinawa—because text book companies have left them out. This lack of history, he said, included governments. When President Charles DeGaulle demanded that all U.S. troops be evacuated off French soil, President Johnson directed Secretary of State Rusk to ask if that included the American soldiers buried there.

I was able to walk along the side and placed the roses in front of Jim’s niche during the ceremony. I stood beneath the shade of my umbrella for the remainder of the program. When the speakers were finished, the rifle volley and “Taps” reminded us more than words of the veteran’s sacrifices for the good of the country, for our freedom.

It was a lovely service in a beautiful cemetery that honors our Missouri Veterans. Flags from the branches of service, the POW flag, the Missouri State Flag, and Old Glory flapped in the breeze, keeping watch over the veterans.  As the crowd began to clear, peace blanketed the cemetery.

copyright © by L.S. Fisher, May 2014

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