Memorial Day. It’s viewed as the unofficial start of summer. Public pools open, kids are out of school, and BBQ grills are fired up all over the nation. However, Memorial Day is also a national solemn day of remembrance for those who have served our country. The origins of Memorial Day are widely debated. Many places claim they are the birthplace of the holiday and there is evidence of communities gathering in remembrance as early as the American Civil War period. It wasn’t until 1967 that it became a federally recognized national holiday.
On the third Monday in May, the United States honors their military heroes. Flags are placed on gravesites, “Taps” is played and remembrance poppies are distributed. These poppies are inspired by the Poem “In Flanders Fields” written by John McCrae, a Canadian lieutenant colonel and surgeon during World War One. The poem became an inspiration for a French woman, Anna E. Guerin, and Moina Michael of the US, and they decided to sell artificial poppies to help orphans and others left behind due to the war. Today, the US department of Veterans of Foreign Wars enlists the help of veterans in medical facilities and veteran’s homes to make the poppies to help raise money for veterans and widows. The National World War One Museum and Memorial in Kansas City has a glass bridge suspended over a bed of 9000 poppies, each representing 1000 deaths, totaling 9 million soldiers lost in the war.
Besides the World War One museum in Kansas City, there are a countless number of interesting museums and archives throughout the United States documenting our military past. For instance: The Civil War Museum and the Women’s Museum of the American Civil War in Kentucky. In Maine you can visit The Burnham Tavern, a historic site where militia members planned the first naval engagement of the American Revolution, and in Nebraska you can take flight simulators at the Strategic Air Command and Aerospace Museum. There is also the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and if you prefer to stay home, you can visit a digital archive of first World War Poetry in an online community called Second Life.
Poetry, diaries and letters written by soldiers and others involved or affected by war are great ways to look into the thoughts and feelings of people living in the moment. Museums and archives have done a great job of preserving these important historical artifacts. Many such poems have been digitized and are available to view online. The Library of Congress has a poetry resource section complete with subject guides on poetry from events including the Civil War and September 11th. In keeping with the World War One theme there is the First World War Digital Archives and the Poetry Foundation website.
Besides artifacts in museums, poetry and stories in archives, there is yet another type of memorial, perhaps the most important of them all to our soldiers: cemeteries. The US Department of Veterans Affairs has a nationwide gravesite locator. This database allows you to search for veterans with as little information as just their last names. Once you have found the veterans you are looking for, the database can tell you the rank and branch of military they were in as well as what war they served in. It gives you their birth dates and death dates and the location of the gravesites. This information is updated regularly and a lot of it is done with the help of church volunteers and genealogy enthusiasts. While not all who have served are buried in national cemeteries, burial registers kept by cemetery staff have made it easier to find information.
So while you are eating your hotdogs and corn on the cob and watching the kids splash around in the pool, take some time to remember what Memorial Day is all about. Take a trip to a local museum, participate in a parade or ceremony, or read some poetry written by soldiers.
Jennifer Crawford, MLIS
Marketing Librarian @ Access Innovations, Inc.