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Source: Don Mrozek, 785-532-0377,
News release prepared by: Nellie Ryan, 785-532-2535,

Monday, May 17, 2010


MANHATTAN -- The holiday known today as Memorial Day actually began as Decoration Day and was designed to honor military personnel of the American Civil War, according to Don Mrozek, professor of history at Kansas State University.

Mrozek, who also is a faculty member of K-State's Institute for Military History and 20th Century Studies, is a specialist in American military history, with particular interests in civil-military relations, the interplay between societal development and military institutions, American notions about the nature of war and aspects of American military aviation.

Decoration Day, as it was called in the 1800s, was first observed nationally May 30, 1868, Mrozek said. Like similar practices of today, the tombs of fallen Union soldiers were decorated in remembrance. Over time it became associated with World War I, which is where the significance of the red poppy flower originates, he said.

"Some of the fields in which the battles took place in World War I had extensive areas of poppy flowers, so sometimes, even now -- but certainly in the previous decades -- there would be the sale of poppy flowers as a way of raising money to help care for veterans of past wars," Mrozek said.

The day became known as Memorial Day in the post-World War II era as a way to honor all of those individuals associated with all past American wars, Mrozek said.

One of the more popular sights on Memorial Day is the American flag flying at half-staff. Mrozek said practices like this one and the singing of the national anthem at various events are part of what many historians call a patriotic revival that peaked in the 1930s and during the years of World War II. In 1923 the American Legion led a group of various organizations, including the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, in establishing approved practices for handling of the American flag, and the specification of flying the flag at half-staff until noon on Memorial Day derives from this venture, according to Mrozek.

One of the most interesting ways to honor members of the military on Memorial Day does not have to involve any narrative, as silence can be extremely powerful, Mrozek said. For example, he said that at various memorial sites throughout the U.S. visitors will often see a member of the armed forces standing vigil over the site. The completely still and silent soldier conveys respect and honor without the use of words.

"The focus on things that do not necessarily include a lot of speeches, such as the eloquence of someone standing vigil in honor of those individuals, shows how our memorials have changed throughout the years from memorializing the war to memorializing the people," Mrozek said.

Monuments, such as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, have changed the way people view wars and those soldiers involved in them, Mrozek said. There is no place on the Vietnam Memorial where there is narrative that describes the war – it is meant entirely to focus on the individuals who died. Mrozek said this helps to convey a sense of connection.

"The black granite, mirrored and polished surface reflects your own image as you are reading through the names of those who died," Mrozek said. "That wall is a physical object that connects you with these fallen soldiers."

Mrozek describes this connection with the idea of compassion versus pity. He said in compassion, you can actually understand yourself in that person's place, or you can understand yourself in the place of their families, which is a big part of memorialization.

Another tradition that has become more mainstream, Mrozek said, is for people to personalize these public monuments. Family members often bring photographs, flowers and personal items to these memorials and place them under the name of their loved one, he said.

"That kind of personalization is easily understandable in the case of an individual gravesite belonging to a family, but we've figured out ways of starting to do more of that with these public monuments," Mrozek said. "In many cases, these memorials, especially when one goes back to wars before Vietnam and Korea, are the only things that people have to remember their loved ones."

When looking for ways to honor fallen military on Memorial Day, Mrozek said one of the best things a person can do is something that includes a visible sign of respect. He suggests visiting a military cemetery and placing flowers on a grave that looks like it has not been visited so those individuals are not forgotten.

"The other thing that can be very good is to ask a living veteran if they have anything they feel like saying," Mrozek said. "One of the best things we can do is listen. That's one of the greatest things you can do for those who need healing."