Putting the “In Memory of” back into Memorial Day

The Northern California Veterans Cemetery rests on a hillcrest in the small community of Igo, near Redding. A row of U.S. flags greets visitors as they pass through the gates. With Mount Lassen offering a spectacular backdrop, the lawns are green and lush. Headstones stand in precise rows.

The Northern California 
Veterans Cemetery at Igo.
The Northern California
Veterans Cemetery at Igo.

Operated by the California Department of Veterans Affairs (CalVet), this cemetery is a place where remembrance and reverence often give way to tears. More than 7,500 veterans and their spouses rest there. Three of them are young men who died while serving the nation in Afghanistan, a fourth in Bahrain.

They will be saluted and honored during a service at the cemetery on Memorial Day, as will others in ceremonies at CalVet’s cemeteries in Yountville and Seaside, the nine federal military cemeteries, and in many local cemeteries throughout California.

After all, honoring our war dead is the reason for the day, said Jim Gibson, an 88-year-old veteran Navy submariner who volunteered at the Igo cemetery for many years until his body told him to slow down. But the vast majority of Americans will seize upon this day as an opportunity to enjoy a three-day weekend as a mini-vacation, with little or no acknowledgment given to the reason it exists.

Veterans like Gibson want to remind people of the deeper meaning of Memorial Day. So do Gold Star parents including Richard and Kathy Wood of Modesto, whose son, USAF Airman 1st Class Justin Wood, was killed during an attack by terrorists on Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996. He became the first military casualty buried at the Santa Nella National Military Cemetery near Los Banos. His parents once again will represent the Northern San Joaquin Valley as the Air Force’s Gold Star parents.

“In memory of all the people we’ve lost serving our country,” Richard Wood said.

Memorial Day’s roots trace back to 1865, when citizens went to decorate the graves of their loved ones lost in the Civil War. A year later, Decoration Day became an unofficial holiday on May 30 — though more so in the victorious north than the south, which did the same but chose different days in different states. Gibson’s earliest memories of Memorial Day come from the time when it was still called Decoration Day.

“(It) started for me when I was about six years old in Pennsylvania,” Gibson said. “My father was deeply involved in the American Legion after being a veteran of World War I. We’d get into the old Chevrolet and go to the various cemeteries in western Pennsylvania, and we’d put a flag on each veteran’s grave.”

They grew their own flowers for adornments.

“We had a Civil War veteran in uniform,” Gibson said. “(The veteran) was a drummer boy (during the war) and he was the guest of honor as long as he lived.”

In 1971, Congress established Memorial Day as the final Monday in May. It quickly morphed into the unofficial beginning of the summer as a recreational holiday. For many, the poignancy and reverence of the day seems to have faded over time.

“It changed the scope of how people see the day,” Kathy Wood said. “It used to be centered on our military … people we’ve lost. People have lost sight of what that weekend is for. It became just a normal three-day weekend for most people. Time for family vacation — boating, fishing, camping, barbecue – and no recognition of why the weekend is there.”

Gibson has one hope for this and every other Memorial Day: Respect. Respect for those who died in service to this nation. Respect for the graves and the grounds. Respect for the day by taking the time to learn what it is and what it isn’t.

“It requires only a little bit of effort to put your hand over your heart,” Gibson said. “Or if you’re military, a hand salute.”

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