In nearly every Vermont village cemetery today, American flags flutter near weathered gravestones - with a few rusting five-star medallions nearby. A close look reveals the letters GAR, an abbreviation for the Grand Army of the Republic, founded by the Northern veterans of the Civil War - who collectively were a powerful political force until World War One.
These medallions honor local veterans who died of natural causes, those killed in the War and later brought home by their families, and those who died in captivity or were buried in the 73 federal cemeteries created after the War for an additional 300,000 war dead.
While co-writing the book, ‘Grafting Memory,’ with UVM professor Bill Lipke I learned how beginning with the Civil War, survivors and succeeding generations sought, through physical monuments in stone and bronze, to honor the war dead as individuals and preserve memories through encounters, rituals, and pilgrimages.
Three years after the War's end, General John A. Logan, GAR Commander-in-Chief, declared the 30th of May, 1868, Decoration Day, "for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion."
After World War One, the holiday evolved to commemorate American military personnel who died in all wars. Gradually, too, the name changed to Memorial Day, but it was not confirmed legally until 1968 when Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which established Memorial Day as the last Monday in May in order to create a three-day weekend for federal employees, and, cynics might say, an engine of commerce for the rest of us.
In the book, we wrote that simply living in Vermont has given us a vivid perspective on memorials. In Burlington alone, there are places like Memorial Auditorium - a "living memorial" of many civic uses – so-named to honor World War one veterans, and Battery Park - where monuments commemorating three wars lie within 30 yards of each other. On town greens across the state, there are scores of staring Civil War sentinels.
And everywhere, as the Biblical Book of Ecclesiasticus reminds us: …
some there be, which have no memorial;
who are perished, as though they had never been;
and are become as though they had never been born;
Their bodies are buried in peace;
but their name liveth for evermore.