How to celebrate Memorial Day during a global pandemic

How to celebrate Memorial Day during a global pandemic
© Greg Nash

Like many things impacted by COVID-19, Memorial Day 2020 will look a bit different than past celebrations. There will not be parades, there will not be outdoor barbecues, and there will not be get-togethers with loved ones celebrating the unofficial start of summer.

What there will be, however, is the reason we celebrate Memorial Day in the first place: to honor and mourn the military personnel who have lost their lives during service in the United States Armed Forces. 

Sadly, as with other federal holidays, this meaning is often lost in favor of the excitement many experiences at the thought of a three-day weekend. As was consistently argued by former Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) during his tenure, “in our effort to accommodate many Americans by making the last Monday in May Memorial Day, we have lost sight of the significance of this day to our nation.” 

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Several prominent veterans service organizations agreed with Inouye that “changing the date merely to create three-day weekends has undermined the very meaning of the day. No doubt, this has contributed a lot to the general public’s nonchalant observance of Memorial Day.”

(Memorial Day was initially celebrated on May 30th, but was moved to the last Monday in May as part of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act in 1968. Shortly after that, in 1971, Veterans Day was returned to Nov. 11th, rather than a designated Monday in November because, as noted by the Senate Judiciary Committee, on balance, “the desires of veterans and many other Americans for a special date of commemoration is more important than . . . commercial interests.”)

In light of the COVID19 pandemic, and its associated limitations on travel and social gatherings, as well as the increase in the number of people working from home, the three-day weekend has largely lost its meaning.

However, just because the three-day weekend has lost its meaning, it doesn’t mean that Memorial Day has to lose its meaning. 

On the contrary, the absence of the usual social gatherings and travel excursions associated with the three-day weekend provides more time to pause and reflect on Memorial Day’s true purpose.

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Here are a few ways to honor the fallen at home this Memorial Day: 

  1. Patriotic Chalk Art: “chalk the walk” is a movement that has flooded social media to spread positivity and inspiring messages during the pandemic. Neighborhoods across the country have encouraged their residents to chalk their sidewalks and driveways to make the day a little brighter for passersby. For Memorial Day, chalk your walk with a patriotic mural or a thank you note acknowledging those who have given their lives serving our country.

  2. Tune in to the National Memorial Day Concert. Although this year’s concert won’t have the live audience we typically see on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol this year, the event will still air at 8 p.m. on Sunday, May 24th, on PBS. It will feature actors Gary Sinise and Joe Mantegna giving a special tribute to the fallen by showing footage of new performances and highlights from past concerts. 

  3. Fly the American Flag: one of the best ways to show your appreciation for those who’ve lost their lives serving our country is to fly the flag, or, if you cannot hang a flag, to wear red, white and blue. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs: “On Memorial Day, the flag should be flown at half-staff from sunrise until noon only, then raised briskly to the top of the staff until sunset, in honor of the nation’s battle heroes.”

  4. Donate to an organization that assists survivors: although we specifically honor the fallen on Memorial Day, the fallen often leave behind loved ones who continue to grieve year-round, not just on Memorial Day. For example, this year, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) will host a Virtual National Military Survivor Seminar and Family Program as an online event at no cost to any interested attendee. You can also review the organization’s Grateful Nation Memorial Here Wall here.

  5. Ancestry’s Memorial Day Parade of Heroes: Ancestry, an organization dedicated to family history, will host a “Parade of Heroes” on its Facebook page Monday, May 25th, at 11 a.m. The event will be hosted by Kathie Lee Gifford and will also commemorate the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II. According to Dr. Kimberly Gilmore, Lead Historian and Senior VP of Research at A+E Networks: “During [these] challenging times, we can all be inspired by remembering that every person who has served our nation has a powerful story that can shed light on the history we share and the future we will build together.” 

Although Memorial Day will certainly look a bit different this year due to the current COVID-19 pandemic and the associated stay at home orders still in effect in many places across the nation, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Rather, the cancellation of social gatherings provides us with a greater opportunity to remember why we celebrate Memorial Day in the first place — to honor and respect that military personnel who have lost their lives serving our country. 

Despite the current challenges we face due to COVID-19, we should remain grateful for their service and their sacrifice.

Rory E. Riley-Topping served as a litigation staff attorney for the National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP), where she represented veterans and their survivors before the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. She also served as the staff director and counsel for the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs for former Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.). You can find her on Twitter: @RileyTopping.