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Remember the solemnity of the day

Jan Hearne • May 29, 2012 at 9:25 AM

Tomorrow America observes Memorial Day, which for many of us means cookouts and get-togethers, the celebration of a three-day weekend and shopping the Memorial Day sales.

For others it is a time of remembrance.

In cemeteries throughout the South, families will tend to the graves of their dead, honoring in particular, their relatives who died in our wars.

Memorial Day was observed first as a Decoration Day but was officially proclaimed on May 5, 1868, by Gen. John Logan. The first Memorial Day was observed May 30 of that year. The graves at Arlington National Cemetery, both Union and Confederate, were laid with flowers.

In the beginning the day was meant to honor those who died in the Civil War. After World War I, however, it was changed to recognize all American soldiers killed in war.

And who are the dead we honor? More than 1,300,000 Americans have died in combat from the Revolu-tionary War to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. More than half of those soliders died during the Civil War, America’s most costly war.

During World War I, 116,516 U.S. soldiers died; World War II claimed 405,399 souls. Nineteen young Americans died during the invasion of Grenada in 1983, 43 in the Somalia Intervention, and 12 in Bosnia. During the 1990-91 Gulf War, 258 soldiers died.

In the Korean War, often called the Forgotten War, 36,516 young men and women lost theirs lives. More than 58,000 died in Vietnam, though the lives destroyed from the effects of war will never be accurately tallied.

As the years have passed, we have forgotten what Memorial Day is about. When I was younger, red poppies were worn on Memorial Day, a symbol adopted from the poem “In Flanders Fields,” written by Lt. Col. John McCrae of the Canadian Army after the battle of Ypres in 1915:

“In Flanders field the poppies blow; between the crosses row on row,” the poem begins. “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.”

McCrae, a physician, wrote the poem while sitting in the back of an ambulance at his medical station. A witness said McCrae looked up from time to time to gaze at the grave of his friend, Alexis Helmer, who had died in the battle two days before. McCrae had presided over Helmer’s burial.

In 1915, Moina Michael, an American, was the first to wear a red poppy in remembrance. When Madame Guerin of France learned of the custom, she popularized it in her country, selling artificial poppies to benefit war orphans and widows. In 1922, the Veterans of Foreign Wars became the first group to sell poppies nationally, a practice that continues to this day.

With the passage of the National Holiday Act of 1971, which declared the observance of Memorial Day would be the last Monday in May in order to give workers another three-day weekend, the significance of the day began to fade.

In an effort to bring back its due solemnity, a National Moment of Remembrance resolution was passed in December 2000. It asks all Americans to observe a moment of silence at 3 p.m. Memorial Day.

A momentary pause to remember the more than 1,300,000 who have died during war. It’s little enough to ask for those who gave all.

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