Oregon has a long, truly remarkable tradition of formal, civic observance of Memorial Day. The diversity and depth of ceremonies around the state are testaments to the power and dedication of veterans groups, supporting municipal governments and citizens in each area who have helped organize and attend these events over the years. We are fortunate to have so many Memorial Day observances around the state, each one with unique local customs and tinged with its own richness and meaning.
On the morning of Memorial Day in Oregon, people in some cities (Klamath Falls, Prineville, Reedsport, Seaside, Warrenton) still maintain the tradition, going back to the founding of Memorial Day, of having full-fledged parades. These processions wind their way through main streets and/or neighborhoods and are truly remarkable events. The bedrock Memorial Day event for most locales, however, is at least one solemn and inspiring service. This may occur in a national military cemetery (Portland/Willamette National, Roseburg National, Eagle Point National), a state military cemetery (Warrenton/Ft. Stevens), a city-managed public cemetery (Astoria, Oregon City, Pendleton, Redmond), or a private cemetery (Bend, Salem, Tualatin). There you will come upon more flags than you may have ever seen (more than 140,000 in the case of the Willamette National cemetery!) placed by volunteers all along tree-lined roads and on the graves of veterans and set against a breathtaking natural backdrop. Or the service may be held in a public park at one of the beautiful state war memorials (Korean War/Wilsonville, Vietnam War/Portland, Afghan-Iraqi War/Salem), county war memorials (Benton County/Corvallis, Washington County/Hillsboro), or a city veterans memorial (Beaverton, Gresham, Klamath Falls, North Plains, Warrenton). Services feature the placement of beautiful wreaths, the playing of taps, inspiring patriotic music, and speeches by high-ranking military and government officials, and are often highlighted by gun or canon salutes and/or military flyovers. Oh, and food and drinks!
Your attendance at one of these formal observances each year matters for two reasons. First, Oregon history and American history matter. Part of our civic responsibility is understanding that history and helping our children understand it and attending a Memorial Day service is powerful, hands-on way to gain that understanding. Second, Memorial Day is completely unique as a holiday, or any day we have really, in its particular focus: to get us to reflect on the nature of major sacrifice. What can we learn from and feel about those who died in war for our country? What does it mean to sacrifice for something bigger than oneself?
So make it a point to go. Take a family member or friend with you. Look at the smiles and feel the good will and togetherness of the people around you at the ceremony. You’ll be glad you made the effort.