Last December, over 90,000 volunteers gathered at Arlington National Cemetery. They were there to honor the fallen members of the United States military.
People have lots of different ways that they honor the dead.
In Mongolia and Tibet, bodies are placed on mountaintops to be returned to the earth. In Madagascar they perform “the turning of the bones,” in which they exhume their dead family members and dance with them. Mexico even celebrates an entire holiday — aptly called the Day of the Dead — where they hold gatherings to pray for their deceased.
Wreaths Across America is a national nonprofit that has created its own way to remember those that have passed away. Every year, they rely on volunteers and donations to help lay wreaths on the headstones of fallen heroes all over the nation.
“The original inspiration was our founder Morrill Worcester. He is a wreath maker up in Maine, who found himself with some excess wreaths at the close of the holiday season back in 1992,” said Wayne Hanson, Board Chairman for Wreaths Across America.
Worcester had always had a profound respect for our nation’s veterans. Armed with 5,000 holiday wreaths, he and a few of his workers drove down to Arlington National Cemetery to lay them on the headstones. The trip had such an impact for him that he decided to do it each year following.
13 years later, an Air Force photographer accompanied Worcester and other volunteers to the Cemetery. A picture that he took depicted the wreaths among freshly fallen snow. The image went viral, and inspired so much support that Worcester decided to start Wreaths Across America in 2007.
“Wreaths Across America has grown from those initial 5,000 wreaths in 1992, to more than 1.5 million wreaths at over 1,400 locations last year,” Hanson said.
“Morrill’s goal is to put a wreath on every veteran’s grave across the country.”
To Remember, honor and teach
Their mission — in bold, white letters across the top of their website — is to remember the fallen, honor those who serve, and teach the next generation the value of freedom. It’s a mission that has driven them since their founding, and motivates so many more to support the cause.
“People have to realize what the veterans have done to secure the freedoms that we all enjoy every day. Especially now, with the military being an all volunteer operation — we can’t forget those who serve and their families,” Hanson expressed.
National Wreaths Across America Day falls on Saturday, December 15th this year. Events will be organized nationwide, with hundreds of thousands of people participating. Hanson, who started as a volunteer, is also a location coordinator for Arlington National Cemetery. He has seen more than a decade of wreath laying ceremonies.
“Last year we did over 247,000 wreaths at Arlington. We were able to cover every marker, every column, and the columbarium,” Hanson said. “I call [Arlington] a library, because I feel that behind every stone is a story.”
Aside from their work during the holiday season, Wreaths Across America attends military events year-round. They also have a mobile educational trailer. It’s a 48-foot Chevy Ford truck and trailer, completely decked out in military history. It’s geared toward children, with activities like drawing and reading, where they can learn how wreaths are made. This trailer travels around the U.S. to educate people on the importance of honoring our service members.
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You have the option to volunteer to lay wreaths at one of over 1,400 locations near you. You can also sponsor a veteran’s wreath, or make a donation.
“We receive no government funding; we rely on donations,” Hanson said. “There are some corporate donations, certainly, but the majority of what we receive is from the people out there reaching into their purse or their pocketbook and pulling out $15 — that’s what it is to sponsor a wreath — and sending that in.”
a Labor of Love
“We do it as a labor of love and support,” Hanson said.
A massive, country-wide effort is what it takes to make all this possible. From the hardworking volunteers, to the generous donors, and the people behind the curtain at Wreaths Across America. Hanson often jokes that, as the Chairman of the Board for a nonprofit, he makes a six figure salary; though, unfortunately, those figures are all zeroes.
“I’m a Vietnam veteran myself, and I want to continue to show support for our veterans. We didn’t get that welcome home that so many others did. We’ve learned from the tragedies of the Vietnam era, and we do welcome home our veterans now. We want to continue that, and we cannot forget those who have made the ultimate sacrifice.”
On December 15th, the volunteers will be there all day; lining up behind the wreath trucks, and sharing tales of loved ones whose graves will soon be honored. When founder Morrill Worcester laid the first wreaths, he took time to admire each marker — the names, years, and units of those who had served. Today, Wreaths Across America asks their volunteers to say those names aloud.
“Somebody had a quote that you die twice,” Hanson said. “You die once when your heart stops beating, and you take that last breath. But you die a final time when your name is said for the very last time.”