The death of Osama bin Laden brought back images of September 11, 2001. We witnessed so much of that bloody tragedy that it seems miraculous that since then, courageous men and women have volunteered to face similar horrors in war zones, to protect and avenge this country and all of us. Now, small flags fly above the graves of many of those courageous souls.
I remember such a flag, flying above the grave of my Uncle Irvin Bates, who was killed at Okinawa. It flew in the windswept cemetery at Bates, Idaho. My mother grew up as a neighbor of Irvin’s, and then in later years, Mom married Wayne Nelson and Irvin married Wayne’s sister, Ruth. Our parents instilled in us a solemn reverence for the American flag, especially the flag that flew above Irvin’s grave.
As a child, I looked forward to playing with cousins at the big Memorial Day family picnic. However, my favorite Memorial Day memories were placing lilacs, apple blossoms, tulips, iris, wildflowers and even dandelions on loved ones' graves—in recognition of my grandfather’s request to put “Any kind of flowers, even dandelions, on my grave, but never put plastic flowers there.” He was buried in the Bates Idaho Cemetery, and eventually, my grandmother was laid next to him, no longer a happy participant at the family picnic.
Death is certain for all of us. Living on after the death of a loved one is one of life’s most painful challenges. Memorial Day softens that heavy burden with its whispered message, “Remember me fondly, with spring flowers.”
Lt. Col. John McRae, MD, combined the image of flowers with the challenge to remember in his poem “In Flanders Fields.” When he wrote it, this experienced battle surgeon of the Canadian 1st Field Artillery Brigade had spent 17 days treating injured men -- Canadians, British, Indians, French, and Germans -- in the Ypres salient in World War I.
McCrae later wrote: "…Seventeen days of Hades! At the end of the first day if anyone had told us we had to spend 17 days there, we would have folded our hands and said it could not have been done."
One death particularly affected McCrae. A young friend and former medical student of McCrae’s, Lt. Alexis Helmer of Ottawa, was killed 2 May 1915. Helmer was buried in the little cemetery outside McCrae's dressing station, and McCrae performed the funeral in the chaplain’s absence.
The next day, sitting on the back of an ambulance parked beside the Canal de l'Yser, where wild poppies grew, McCrae vented his anguish by composing a poem.
It was very nearly not published. Dissatisfied with it, McCrae tossed the poem away, but a fellow officer retrieved it and sent it to newspapers in England. The Spectator rejected it, but Punch published it. (Information from http://www.arlingtoncemetery.net/flanders.htm) Here is the poem:
This year, may we celebrate the coming of spring with picnics, camping, swimming, boating, and outdoor sports, because we’ve waited a long time for good weather! But also, may we take a child to a cemetery and place some flowers, look at some flags, and remember. . .