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Today is November 22, 2019

Wreaths across America

Remembering and honoring Mississippi veterans

By Nancy Jo Maples

Wreaths across America

The Mississippi Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Newton, Wreaths Across America 2018.

In emotional, patriotic wreath-laying services each second Saturday in December, deceased veterans are remembered throughout Mississippi as well as all other 49 states, at sea and abroad. The annual event is called Wreaths Across America and will be held this December 14. The idea is to recognize all veterans from the Revolutionary War to present-day conflicts.

More than 1,600 military cemeteries participate across the country, including Mississippi Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Newton and North Mississippi Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Kilmichael. Other participating sites are national cemeteries in Biloxi, Corinth and Natchez and the Mississippi War Memorial Monument in Pontotoc.

Mark Lawson, director of the veterans’ state burial grounds in Newton and Kilmichael, said he favors the Wreaths Across America ceremonies of all military recognition services. Volunteers place the greenery, pause with hand over heart or a salute and then speak the person’s name.

“A person dies two deaths — the physical death and the death when people stop speaking our names,” Lawson said. “This ceremony keeps our veterans from dying the second death.”

This year’s events at the Newton and Kilmichael cemeteries begin at 9:30 a.m. and will include a ceremonial laying of wreaths on each of the 946 tombstones at the Newton site, as well as the 78 graves at Kilmichael. In addition, the ceremonies include laying wreaths at the flagpole in Newton and at the roundabout in Kilmichael for each branch of the military, plus the U.S. Merchant Marine, Prisoners of War and those Missing in Action. Last year 1,200 people attended the ceremony at Newton and 80 at Kilmichael.

The wreaths are identical, all made of fresh balsam fir bouquets adorned with red bows and made by the Worcester Wreath Company in Maine. Wreaths lay throughout the Christmas season, and volunteers remove them the second Friday in January. The Friends of Mississippi Veterans sponsors the Newton site. Kilmichael’s ceremony is co-sponsored by Civil Air Patrol Golden Triangle Squadron and Civil Air Patrol Cleveland Squadron.

Morrill Worcester started the effort in 1992 when his wreath company had a surplus of wreaths near the end of the holiday season. He remembered touring Arlington National Cemetery as a young boy and decided to donate a surplus of 5,000 wreaths to Arlington as a way to express his gratitude for our veterans’ fight for freedom. Worcester donated wreaths every year without applause or public attention. However, in 2006 a photo of tombstones decorated in his wreaths across Arlington’s snow-laden burial ground went viral on the internet, and the response was so large and patriotic that it evolved into a nonprofit organization — Wreaths Across America.

The live wreaths are now hauled to cemeteries across the nation by truck drivers who donate their time and fuel to the mission. Last year, 1.8 million veterans’ wreaths were draped across tombstones, including 9,387 at Normandy-American Cemetery in France. This year, the program expects to reach 2.3 million wreaths.

The wreaths are more than decorations; they are symbolic. The live greenery symbolizes everlasting life. Each wreath consists of 10 bouquets of balsam tips, representing 10 special qualities of veterans: faith, love, strength, honesty, humility, ambitions, optimism, concern, pride and hopes and dreams. The circular shape represents eternity, the scent represents purity and simplicity and the red bow represents great sacrifice.

Following a mission statement “to remember our fallen U.S. veterans, to honor those who serve, and to teach our children the value of freedom,” Wreaths Across America has a museum that honors veterans and offers programs such as The Veterans Remembrance Tree Program, which was established in 2014 to invite families to visit the land in Columbia Falls, Maine, where the balsam tips are harvested each year. Families can sponsor trees as living memorials to their lost loved ones. Also, the pilgrimage hauling wreaths from Maine to Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia has become known as the world’s largest veterans’ parade, stopping at schools, monuments and communities along the route.

Wreaths costs $15 each and can be ordered online. Wreath-laying ceremonies are open to the public and free to attend. Teaching tools and curriculum for elementary and middle school students are available on the website. Visit www.wreathsacrossamerica.org for more information.

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