On the last Monday in May, Americans honor those members of the Armed Forces who lost their lives in service to their country. It is an occasion to remember the sacrifices made by the few to benefit the many, a recognition of their contribution to the defense of the Country and its ideals.
First observed in the 1868, three years after the end of the U.S. Civil War, Memorial Day, then called Decoration Day, is not meant to recognize the anniversary of any specific battle or even war, but instead aims to urge citizens to remember the sacrifices of the fallen who have been laid to rest in their town, and to honor these war dead by decorating their graves with flowers and ribbons.
On the day of that first Observance, some 5,000 people decorated the graves of 20,000 Civil War soldiers buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington DC, regardless of which side the fallen had fought for. The occasion became a custom that spread across the nation.
Today, cities and towns across the country celebrate Memorial Day with parades that incorporate military personnel and members of veterans’ organizations. People visit cemeteries and memorials. And some wear a small red poppy in remembrance of the war dead. This tradition began during the First World War with a poem written by a soldier in memory of a friend who had died at Ypres, France in early May 1915, just as the bright red poppies were beginning to bloom in the fields and meadows, and on the graves of the fallen.
And so, on every Memorial Day, small flags and bouquets of colorful flowers spring up on headstones and memorial plaques in cemeteries all over the country, decorating the graves of military heroes. And small red poppies worn in lapels or buttonholes represent soldiers who died protecting their country and what it stands for. They died defending a way of life, and values they believed in, and the honor they earned by their sacrifice abides with them forever.