DANIEL VAUGHAN: Poppies, flags, and what we do to remember on Memorial Day

There are both positives and negatives to the long-running American cultural trend of clothing becoming more and more casual.

One negative becomes most obvious when comparing how past generations commemorated national memorials. Today, as people go out on lakes, grill in the backyard, and more, the most common commemorative clothing item is usually a T-shirt with red, white, and blue, or some decorative way of showing the American flag.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but the flag is less descriptive when it comes to Memorial Day. It’s certainly a patriotic day on the American calendar. It memorializes the sacrifices many Americans have made to make this the great country it is. Traditionally, however, past generations wore a red poppy flower, instead of the flag, to commemorate the holiday.

We get the red poppy flower tradition from the first world war. The American Foreign Legion notes: “After World War I, the poppy flourished in Europe. Scientists attributed the growth to soils in France and Belgium becoming enriched with lime from the rubble left by the war. From the dirt and mud grew a beautiful red poppy.”

The appearance of the red poppy was popularized by John McCrae, a veteran of “The Great War” and a Canadian doctor and teacher. McCrae wrote a poem entitled “In Flanders Fields” that reads:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
    That mark our place; and in the sky
    The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

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.

Take up our quarrel with the foe: 
To you from failing hands we throw
    The torch; be yours to hold it high. 
    If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
        In Flanders fields.

After that poem helped popularize the poppy in the national consciousness, people took to wearing them. The American Foreign Legion went further: “On September 27, 1920, the poppy became the official flower of The American Legion family to memorialize the soldiers who fought and died during the war. In 1924, the distribution of poppies became a national program of The American Legion.”

The red poppies grew in fields where the brave lost their lives. They remind us both of the lives lost, but also where they lost them: in those battlefields, in the fight. When you combine this tradition with the tradition of placing flags on the graves of veterans in places like Arlington National Cemetery, you get the full impact of Memorial Day.

Poppies and flags on graves get at some of the central words of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, when he said: “We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of it, as a final resting place for those who died here, that the nation might live.”

Lincoln’s point in that simple yet powerful speech wasn’t just remembering the events and acknowledging a sacrifice. It’s an active call to action to build upon these sacrifices. The 16th president said:

It is rather for us, the living, we here be dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that, from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here, gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve these dead shall not have died in vain; that the nation, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people by the people for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Memorial Day, then, is a two-fold holiday of remembrance and action. We remember the fallen for what they have done, and we endeavor every day to ensure those deaths are not in vain. We remember so that we do not need such sacrifice again.

Thomas Jefferson is credited with observing, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”

People don’t always know the first part of that quote. Jefferson starts out by observing: “The people cannot be all, and always, well informed.”

One way in which we get an uninformed people is that we forget the sacrifices of our ancestors. We forget the great sacrifices of our mother and fathers, grandfathers and grandmothers, and those with multiple “great” prefixes that paved the way to our free present reality.

Red poppies and flags on graves are a symbolic act meant to remind us and reground us in the lessons learned through the hard cost of blood. As our culture moves to a more increasingly casual one, it’s harder to remember that, because the clothing and mediums we use to express ourselves are less natural to that point. That difficulty is a challenge, but shouldn’t be a bar to remembering the lessons of the past.

America has faced great battles through the Revolutionary War through the present day. We should use red poppies, flags, and more to remember and build upon that great legacy.