A Memorial Day Tradition For The Family

Together with your family, use these ideas to pay your respects to our country’s fallen soldiers.

by Tessa Zundel
PHOTO: Tessa Zundel

Each Memorial Day, Americans enjoy picnics, parades and visits with family. While these activities are all worthwhile in their own right, perhaps it’s time we engaged in a new tradition—well, actually, a pretty old one—to feel the true meaning of Memorial Day.

Remembering Our Fallen Soldiers

Memorial Day, once called Decoration Day, has its roots in the American Civil War and was a holiday set aside to honor the soldiers who had died in that conflict. Even though the Southern states would observe their own memorial days separate from those of the Union up until World War I, eventually the day was declared a day of remembrance for all those who had fallen in battle from any war America participated in.

I have only one American veteran in my family (that I know of at any rate), and that’s my grandfather who is still very much alive. As much as we were raised to respect and appreciate service men and women, observing the “memorial” aspect of Memorial Day wasn’t part of my family culture. When I had my own kids, my husband and I decided we wanted to do Memorial Day differently.

Having a busy homestead to run, though, and never having more than a few pennies to rub together at any given time has meant that our observance has been simple. We prepare a fun picnic dinner with family and decorate the house with all the patriotic colors we have, but before we engage in any of that, we visit our local veteran’s cemetery and leave a few homestead tributes of respect.

Ways For Kids To Show Respect

A cemetery isn’t an amusement park, so there’s no reason to try and sell this as a “fun” activity. This is a quiet, fulfilling, respectful and reverent activity, but there will be no circus clowns, no roller coasters and no need for an i-device or any device. Have your kids unplug, exit the car, and prepare to learn a thing or two. That doesn’t mean his has to be boring, though. Veterans’ cemeteries are little corners of history, and they’re fascinating places.
Here are some ideas for kids to make Memorial Day a little more meaningful:

Act With Respect

Remove any hats, calm down and move respectfully, never treading or climbing on grave markers.

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Provide Gifts

Leave a small gift, step back, read the headstone out loud (especially the service person’s name) and then say, “Thank you for your service.” Seems like a little thing but it creates a special feeling. Flowers harvested from the homestead or farm are an obvious choice for something to leave, but always be sure to check the rules at the cemetery you’re visiting—some have items they prefer you not leave, usually because of maintenance requirements. Spring flowering plants, like lilac, violets, iris, snowball viburnum and forsythia, are all logical choices but anything will do. Red poppies have become traditional to leave on Memorial Day. Even just a small bloom can mean a lot, especially if the soldier has family who might be visiting their grave site this special day.

Other gifts from the homestead can include feathers gathered from your decorative poultry, single leaves from spring-budding trees, acorn caps and bits of lichen. Flags are common, too, but they do cost a bit of money, and they can end up discarded or, worse, flying about as litter in a hard wind. Gifts from the farm may blow away but they will go back into the earth with ease.

For Jewish servicemen and women, and even those of other faiths, it is especially appropriate to leave a stone. This tradition is an old one and can often put them in remembrance of the building of the ancient altars to God—built of individual stones placed on top of each other. For some, stones may seem like a harsh thing to leave, but, really, this can be a lovely symbol of building up what may have been lost. A reminder that nothing really ends if it can be built again.

Coins are commonly seen at military cemeteries, too. Although the symbolism has faded in our modern culture, the type of coin you leave can still be significant and even recognized by current or retired servicemen and women. In general, if you’re visiting the grave but were only a friend or merely want to show respect, you leave a penny. If you trained or went through boot camp with the deceased, you leave a nickel. A friend who served with the deceased or was with them when they died would leave a quarter. Without knowing the symbolism, leaving a small coin is very appropriate. Often, the cemetery will collect the coins and use them to help fund the upkeep of the grounds, which is its own kind of respectful act.

Offer A Talent

Leaving a tangible gift isn’t the only thing a child can do. Do they play the violin or guitar, or some other portable instrument? Do they sing well? If they’re not too shy, they can plan to play or sing a bit, quietly and reverently off to the side of the grave sites to help other visitors feel comfortable and respectful while they’re there. In the historic Salt Lake City Veteran’s Cemetery in Salt Lake City, Utah, a bagpipe player appears out of nowhere every year on Memorial Day. He doesn’t ask for money or have a set schedule, but he materializes each year and, if you’re lucky, you’ll be there when he does. His music fills every area he strolls through and carries on the breeze to the surrounding headstones. It’s such a treasure to hear him play, and it always helps us feel keenly the special tribute that he’s paying these fallen soldiers.

There will be plenty of time for farm-grown fried chicken and garden-grown potato salad, and it will all taste even sweeter if we take a bit of time to actually put the memorial in Memorial Day with our children and families.

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