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As you know, Memorial Day (which is coming up on Monday) is a day where Americans remember those who died in active military service. You may also know that since Memorial Day often brings people to the cemetery, it’s also become a day where people take some time at the graves of non-military loved ones as well. Two facts you might not know: Memorial Day was called Decoration Day for over a century, and it wasn’t an official holiday until 1971.

Perhaps you’d like to teach your kids about Memorial Day, or do something special to mark the day, but you don’t have any buried loved ones, military or otherwise, to visit nearby. Here are three ideas for celebrating memorial day with kids:

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First and best idea: Get your family to a military cemetery.

Find out if there’s a military cemetery in your area — a simple search like “bay area military cemetery” will do the trick. And there are far more than you might guess. If you do have one in driving distance, paying it a visit on Memorial Day is by far the most meaningful thing you could do. There’s nothing quite as impactful as a military cemetery. They are sacred places.

You can bring flowers, or just quietly wander with your kids, reading names on the headstones, and thinking of the lives these soldiers sacrificed. You’ll read the dates on graves and it will gut you when you realize that so many were so, so young. Be prepared — the visit will likely prompt discussions about war and death with your kids. Seeing the amount of loss can be almost physically shocking and always leaves me pondering — Is war necessary? Can we ever move beyond it? What do I value so much that I would be willing to fight and die for it? Or that I would allow my children to fight and die for it? What sort of lives did these lost soldiers miss out on? What was the impact on their families?

I’m telling you, it’s an experience that will move you.

Second idea: Attend a memorial at a military base or military museum.

If there’s no military cemetery near you, the next best option is to find out if there’s a military base or military museum of any kind in your area. There are more than you might guess. If yes, make a call or check their website to find out if they are having any sort of flag ceremony or dedication on Memorial Day that is open to the public.

Last year, we went to a one in the very small town of Winnemucca, Nevada. (Go if you can. It was so wonderful!) This year, we’ll be going to a ceremony at the USS Pampanito submarine in San Francisco, where my son Oscar and his scout troop will be doing a flag ceremony.

Not sure how to find out what’s happening in your area? One reliable source is your local American Legion or American Legion Auxiliary chapter.

Third idea: Explore local cemeteries and make an activity of seeking out the graves of notable citizens.

If there don’t seem to be any military options, or if you want something in addition to a military option, you could try my friend Laura’s idea. Growing up, her family would spend Memorial Day bringing flowers to the graves of loved ones — not necessarily military folks — just any relatives they wanted to remember. When Laura was a young mother, she was living far from home in New York, but wanted to give her children some of the same feelings she had on Memorial Day as a child. The solution? Her husband looked up the grave sites of all sorts of famous people buried in the drive-able New York area and they spent the day wandering through four different graveyards and leaving flowers in their wake.

A few of the graves they visited: Herman Melville, Miles Davis, Joseph Pulitzer, Rachmaninoff, Babe Ruth and Duke Ellington. Quietly exploring cemeteries, and observing families visiting the grave sites of their military relatives and other loved ones too, is a wonderful way to both mark the day and get to know your community better. Who is buried in your area? No doubt there is someone significant to your town. Perhaps the person your kids’ school is named after. 

Now your turn. Please share your best ideas for celebrating Memorial Day with kids. I know all three of the things I mentioned are outings, is there something you’ve done at home that has been successful too? I’d love to hear.

P.S. — The image is from our first trip to the American Military Cemetery and D-Day beaches in Normandy, when we lived in France.