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.
— John McCrae
This first verse of John McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Fields” was written in May 1915 as the Canadian soldier saw fields poppies springing up around artillery positions in Belgium. The poppy, which flowers from May to August, is an annual plant that spreads its seeds through wind. Those seeds can lie dormant, sometimes for years, until the ground is broken up in early spring.
In Flanders that year, the ground was broken up, not because of the farmer’s plow, but because of heavy fighting and heavy casualties. From the devastation and loss, new life emerged as dormant seeds began to germinate and grow. The second verse of McCrae’s poem reminds readers of the sobering cost of war.
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.
Memorial Day is the day set aside for us to remember those who died while in service to their country, those who did not feel another dawn, see another sunset or come home to their loved ones. In the United States, it began as “Decoration Day,” a day of solemn remembrance of the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who died during the Civil War. After the devastation of World War I, Memorial Day expanded to include all military members who died in conflict, although it was not formally recognized as a national holiday until 1971.
Like many of you, I have been to Arlington National Cemetery, where the first official “Decoration Day” was held on May 30, 1868. Then-Rep. James Garfield, who had served as a major general in the Union Army, addressed the crowd of some 5,000 people. If silence is ever golden, it must be here beside the graves of 15,000 men, whose lives were more significant than speech, and whose death was a poem, the music of which can never be sung.
I have been to cemeteries in France, where rows of white markers are placed on the final resting spot of Americans who died fighting for their country. Every marker is a reminder of loss. Someone’s son, daughter, husband, wife, brother, sister or friend lay forever in the cool of the earth, never to hug their loved ones again.
The last stanza of McCrae’s poem is a challenge to those of us left behind:
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.
In 1918, Moina Michael caught that torch and vowed to make the red poppy a national symbol of remembrance for those killed in war. In her poem, “We Shall Keep the Faith,” the middle stanza reads:
We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led;
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a lustre to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders Fields.
I was 4 years old when my dad was deployed to the fields of Vietnam. One of his friends, Jim Cross, came and gave my baby brother (born two months after Dad deployed) a giant teddy bear that we named “Crosspatch.” Jim completed one tour of duty and then re-upped for a second. He never came home. I’ve traced his name at the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., because even now, 50 years later, I can still remember how sad our family was.
All over this country are families who mark Memorial Day not with celebration, picnics or shopping, but with solemn and often tear-filled remembrances of a life cut short. We would all be better for pausing and remembering the heavy price others paid for us.
Holly Richardson is a regular contributor to The Salt Lake Tribune.