Memorial Day etiquette, best practices on solemn day


Not all patriotic holidays are created equal, and Memorial Day is no exception.

Though the weekend leading up to Monday, May 30, is often seen as a festive time to gather with friends and family, and perhaps enjoy an extra day off from work, veterans, active duty military men and women, and their families observe the time as a solemn one, when people gather together to honor and remember the ones they've lost.

"It's a day to remember those who gave the ultimate sacrifice," said Bruce E. Charbonneau, commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 6471 of Manchester Center, Vt.

Charbonneau served in various leadership roles in the United States Marine Corps from 1977 to 1998. He's served everywhere, from being stationed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina to serving multiple tours in Okinawa, Japan. And he has lost some military friends and colleagues to various circumstances along the way.

Each year, he and the same group of dozen or so fellow servicemen get together through the VFW to serve in and attend Memorial Day ceremonies in the region. He will speak 3 p.m. Sunday, during the annual Memorial Day parade and services in the center of Middletown Springs, Vt.

In his presentation, he said he plans to cite Abraham Lincoln's 1864 letter to a Mrs. Lydia Bixby, a widow who, he was told, was believed to have lost five sons during the Civil War. In it, Lincoln wrote: "I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine, which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save."

Though historians later discovered that only two sons died of war-related causes, many believe it captures a universal sentiment of war loss.

And it was because of the Civil War that General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, proclaimed on May 5, 1868: "The 30th of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land."

What Gen. Logan then called Decoration Day, evolved into what most people now call Memorial Day in the U.S. Red poppies have become a well-recognized symbol of remembrance.

Said Charbonneau of the process of losing and mourning a fallen comrade, "It's difficult to talk about, but it is a part of wearing the uniform and serving your country."

So what are the most appropriate and respectful ways to observe Memorial Day?

Both Charbonneau and James H. "Jim" Clark, director of Veteran Services in Pittsfield, Mass., said that taking the time to attend a Memorial Day ceremony, parade or service, is one good way to show respect to the families and loved ones of fallen soldiers.

Says Clark, "As far as what one would say to a veteran on Memorial Day, I would much prefer someone to say "I am sorry for your loss," for most of us have known someone who sacrificed their all, than to have someone say "Happy Memorial Day" or "Thank you for your service." There are other days set aside each year for greetings such as those."

It's encouraged that people follow proper flag etiquette, from how the flag is raised and lowered and how it's displayed. It's tradition to keep the flag colors, stars and stripes in flag form, and not alter it for things like apparel, paper plates and other forms of decoration.

Both Clark and Charbonneau also said it's important to continue to support families and veterans who have lost a military service person and may be struggling emotionally, socio-economically or in other ways.

"We try very hard at the VFW to take care of veterans and their families. The VA (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs) has bereavement clinics and all kinds of assistance. The VA is really doing great things now," said Charbonneau.

Said Clark, "We cannot forget that for each of these fallen soldiers, there remains behind a family a mother, a father, sister or brother, a spouse, and children, who will never see their loved one again. As we strive to forever remember our fallen heroes, we cannot forget that their families need our support and understanding even years after their loved one gave his or her all. Their battle hasn't ended either do not forget to tell them that you are sorry for their loss, as well."


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