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Pandemic Puts Damper On Memorial Day Ceremonies

The Champaign County Veterans Memorial, outside the county courthouse in Urbana. A Memorial Day ceremony held annually at the site is not being held this year, due to coronavirus fears.

URBANA — The observance of Memorial Day is happening in Illinois this year with far fewer ceremonies than usual. The coronavirus outbreak has put a damper on all public gatherings — including those held to remember military personnel and veterans who have died.

Veterans groups in Mattoon and Georgetown are among those holding Memorial Day ceremonies this year, with requests that those attending practice social distancing. But organizations in other towns are avoiding group activities.

For Adam Yau, commander of the VFW Post 5520 in Champaign, the coronavirus outbreak has meant the cancellation of the Memorial Day ceremony that his post usually holds at Woodlawn Cemetery in Urbana. His VFW post has limited their Memorial Day activity this year to placing flags on graves in Woodlawn’s veterans’ section. 

“In the service, we’re always trying to adjust, adapt and overcome to different situations,” said Yau, an Army and National Guard veteran. “And this is a new one that’s put out in the nation right now. We’re trying to work with it.”

Danville National Cemetery

Some 12,000 military veterans are interred at the 63-acre national cemetery in Danville. On any other Memorial Day, the cemetery would be the site of a ceremony organized by the local American Legion Post 210. Such ceremonies typically feature an honor guard and rituals such as the laying of a wreath at a memorial site, the playing of “Taps”, and a 21-gun salute.

But this year, only the wreath-laying will take place, in a private ceremony on Monday morning, to be shared on social media by the National Cemetery Administration, which operates the Danville cemetery.

“NCA made the difficult decision to not host public events for Memorial Day, including the mass placement and retrieval of gravesite flags by any groups,” the agency stated in a statement on its website.

Air Force veteran and Veterans of Foreign Wars state commander for Illinois, Bradley Gould, will take part in the ceremony. He’s not particularly happy that most Memorial Day ceremonies are closed down due to the coronavirus outbreak, when big box stores like Walmart and Lowes are open during the holiday.

“It’s a time to mourn,” said Gould of the holiday remembering soldiers and sailors killed in the line of duty, “They gave the ultimate sacrifice so we could have the country we do today. And it’s been going on since 1866. And I don’t see why we should stop honoring our veterans, our veterans and service members that have passed.”

1866 is the year when some U.S. cities held the first memorial observances for soldiers killed in the Civil War, a practice that evolved into the Memorial Day national holiday.

Champaign County’s Private Memorial Day Ceremony

Gould is also director of the Champaign County Veterans Assistance Commission, a financial assistance agency for veterans that normally holds a Memorial Day ceremony at the veterans’ monument in downtown Urbana. That ceremony is not happening this year.

But Gould organized a private ceremony for Champaign County veterans, which was held Sunday morning (May 24) on the grounds of VFW Post 630 in downtown Urbana, where he is a member. Gould invited each of the two dozen or so veterans groups in the county (including the American Legion, VFW, AMVETS, the Marine Corps League and the Disabled American Veterans) to send representatives to the ceremony. He says about forty people attended, wearing face masks and observing social distancing. The event included the playing of “Taps”, a 21-gun salute, and in lieu of a wreath, the presentation of a U.S. flag flown in Iraq during the Iraq War

“It would have been nice to have the family members (of departed veterans) there”, said Gould. “But with everything going on, it just wasn’t possible.”

The unpublicized program was held in place of the public ceremonies that are typically held at area cemeteries and veterans memorial sites on Memorial Day. While many of those ceremonies are not being held this year, veterans organizations are still involved in decorating the graves of deceased military personnel and veterans with U.S. flags for Memorial Day.

Gravesite Decorations Continue

In Danville, American Legion Post 210 Senior Vice Commander Audrey Morris says she and other volunteers decorated gravesites at cemeteries in and around Danville.

“We were careful and we worked independently and we didn’t have any issues and everybody was healthy,” said Morris. “We do this all out of honor.”

Morris spoke on Friday (May 22) after she and other volunteers had placed flags at the graves of veterans at Springhill Cemetery — Vermilion County’s largest cemetery — and other cemeteries north of Danville.

“We did everything very tastefully”, said Morris, who said the graves of some 3,000 veterans had been decorated throughout Vermilion County. “And when we place that flag by their tombstone, we always say ‘Rest in peace’ to the veteran and say their name to ourselves. And it’s just quite moving.”

Honor Guards Returning Soon

Besides Memorial Day ceremonies, Illinois’ stay-at-home order has also restricted the use of honor guards at veterans’ funerals at national cemeteries. Morris helps oversee the honor guard for Post 210, but says they haven’t been able to appear at funerals since mid-March. She says she’s looking forward to May 29, when most of Illinois will move to Phase 3 of Gov. JB Pritkzer’s Restore Illinois plan. At that time, she says the honor guards can return. Morris says the military rites, which include a flag presentation and a 21-gun salute, are important to the families of veterans.

“What it means to them is very emotional, but it’s also a final tribute,” said Morris. “They’re finally putting their loved one at rest and for what he sacrificed for our country means a lot to that family. And especially the veteran, the deceased veteran who was always instrumental in making sure that his family was taken care of.”

Picture of Jim Meadows

Jim Meadows

Jim Meadows has been covering local news for WILL Radio since 2000, with occasional periods as local host for Morning Edition and All Things Considered and a stint hosting WILL's old Focus talk show. He was previously a reporter at public radio station WCBU in Peoria.

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