This year marks a century since the haunting poem “In Flanders Fields” made the poppy flower a potent symbol of lives lost in World War I and conflicts since then. This Memorial Day, Americans ought to seize on momentum created by Great Britain’s recent war memorial, one that captured global attention by filling the Tower of London’s moat with ceramic versions of this blood-red flower, to re-energize the tradition of wearing a poppy as a tribute to the fallen.
Americans over a certain age remember Memorial Days spent at the cemetery, a tradition that continues but that unfortunately has lost ground to shopping or celebrating summer’s beginning at the cabin. Marking this solemn occasion in years past also included donning a silk or paper poppy handed out by the local Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) or American Legion post. Or, putting one of these blossoms on the tombstones of those who served.
Today, VFW and American Legion posts continue their decades-old tradition of distributing artificial poppies for Memorial Day while collecting donations. This is typically one of these organizations’ biggest yearly fundraisers, with proceeds directed to local veterans or their families who have fallen on hard times.
Unfortunately, the tradition of displaying the poppy may be fading. Too few people are wearing this easy-to-put-on reminder of lives given defending liberty. Younger generations especially appear to have lost the connection, something that is all too apparent when veterans start appearing at public places with their poppy bundles and collection cans this month or in the fall as Veterans Day approaches.
Many people still provide a donation, but then bypass the proferred posy or don’t understand what to do with it. The answer, of course: Wear it. Putting poppies on baseball caps, on purses or on zipper tags is appropriate and appreciated, said Duane Hermanson, a Cannon Falls man who is the incoming state VFW commander.
The number of poppies distributed in Minnesota and elsewhere underscores concerns about this tradition’s endurance. More than 1 million VFW “Buddy Poppies” were distributed annually in Minnesota before 2001, Hermanson said. This year, it’s below 500,000. Nationally, a VFW spokeswoman said distribution “has dropped anywhere between 200,000 and 900,000 for the last few years.” The American Legion, which also hands out poppies, also saw a significant drop in distribution between 2011 and 2013.
Declining distribution doesn’t just raise concerns about displaying proper respect for wartime sacrifice. While poppy-related donations in Minnesota still appear to be strong, the VFW national spokeswoman said the national tally has been on a “downward trend” in recent years. Nearly $12 million is collected yearly across the nation.
Hermanson said the donations play an important role in helping local veterans. Money collected in his hometown, for example, has provided gas cards to returning veterans and helped another struggling veteran make a mortgage payment. In addition, the VFW poppies are assembled by hand in veterans’ homes around Minnesota. Those who work on the poppies get a stipend that helps with personal expenses.
About 4 million people are estimated to have visited the Tower of London poppy art installation late last year. Roughly 880,000 ceramic flowers were planted at the historical attraction to commemorate British forces lost in World War I. The exhibit’s popularity testified not only to the poppy’s enduring power but its adaptability to the modern era.
Veterans organizations in the United States should build on this exhibit’s success to connect with younger generations and increase the blossoms’ appeal. Could there be a similar poppy exhibit in the United States? Are there social-media strategies to allow virtual poppy displays and raise awareness of the aid that poppy donations provide to veterans?
The possibilities are endless as the flower’s first century as a cherished symbol comes to a close. Renewed support and fresh thinking and marketing are in order so that the neither the poppy, nor those it commemorates, are forgotten in the next 100 years.