The longer you live, the more likely you’ll be to have an empty chair at your holiday table. That chair may belong to a loved one on active military duty. Or to a veteran who has passed away. That’s one reason “Wreaths Across America” was started back in 1992 at Arlington National Cemetery. The program grew slowly at first. Then, in 2005, a photo of the headstones at Arlington—adorned with Christmas wreaths and covered in snow—went viral on the internet. Thousands of people wanted to help at Arlington or to copy the project in their own communities.
Wreaths Across America has been expanding ever since. Its mission is simple: REMEMBER. HONOR. TEACH. This December, more than 1400 cemeteries across the nation were sites for wreath-laying ceremonies on veterans’ graves, including two right here in Putnam County.
Quarles-Burton Cemetery in Algood has been participating for several years. Last Saturday, Crestlawn Cemetery became an official Wreaths Across America site, too.
For the second time in as many months, I stood with a crowd in the pouring rain to honor veterans. But unlike the Veterans Day parade in November, there were no marching bands or motorcycles or military Humvees. The small cluster of folks gathered near the back of the cemetery was welcomed by Sons of the American Revolution president Ken Whitaker. Adam Daniels, youth pastor at Cookeville First United Methodist Church, said a prayer. We recited the Pledge of Allegiance and sang “The Star Spangled Banner” before receiving instructions from Bill Prall, commander of American Legion post 135.
“Place each wreath respectfully on the grave,” he said. “Then say the veteran’s name out loud, followed by ‘We Remember You’.”
The crowd of about 50, which included the youth group and members of two adult Sunday School classes from First Methodist Church, sloshed all over the cemetery searching for grave markers that indicated military service. In the next half hour, 200 wreaths were reverently laid in place.
It was a solemn and special afternoon.But that’s not the end of my story. Two days later, I attended the screening at the Highland 12 Cinema of “They Shall Not Grow Old,” a film by Peter Jackson.Over the course of four years, Jackson and his crew transformed 100-year-old footage of British soldiers on the Western Front in World War I into a remastered,colorized, 3-D documentary. Those of us in the theatre traveled back in time to experience the Great War alongside those who were actually in the trenches. It was incredibly sobering and eye-opening.
I’m grateful that honoring our veterans has gone beyond Memorial Day and Veterans Day observances. Even during the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, it’s important to stop long enough to honor those who served, from the Revolutionary War to the present, and have passed on. Placing a Christmas wreath on a veteran’s grave is a fitting way to do that.
(December 23, 2018)