The coronavirus outbreak may have forced many of the city’s Memorial Day traditions to be cancelled — but a southern Brooklyn councilman is advocating for the continuation of one of the borough’s most sacred traditions commemorating fallen soldiers: the annual flag placement at Cypress Hills National Cemetery.
“Laying flowers at the graves of fallen soldiers for Memorial Day is a time-honored tradition that many of our neighbors and community organizations take part in,” Bay Ridge councilman Justin Brannan told Brooklyn Paper. “Our fallen heroes rose up to protect us in the midst of unprecedented challenges — I’m sure we can find a way to honor them safely this year and carry on this important tradition.”
The National Cemetery Administration, overseen by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, hosts a flag placement cemetery every Memorial Day at all its national cemeteries, including at the Cypress Hills National Cemetery. During the storied ceremony, groups, such as members of the American Legion or Boy Scouts of America, place and retrieve flags from veteran’s gravesites. The gathering, which dates back to some time after World War II, typically draws crowds of spectators, including veterans’ families.
The federal administration, however, recently announced its decision to cancel the annual flag placement at all of its cemeteries across the country, in an effort to protect volunteers from the spread of novel coronavirus. Instead, cemetery staff will perform a wreath-laying ceremony to be posted online, according to the organization.
“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 group said in a statement. “NCA relies largely on volunteers for placement and retrieval of gravesite flags for Memorial Day and these activities attract thousands of volunteers annually.”
But Brannan, who insists that the ceremony can be performed safely, is asking US Secretary of Veteran Affairs Robert Wilkie to reinstate the flag placement at New York City’s only national resting place.
“I am therefore concerned by the National Cemetery Administration’s decision to suspend flag placement at national cemeteries due to health risks posed by COVID-19,” said Brannan, who penned a letter to Wilkie on May 18. “I believe that cemeteries are capable of planning and implementing safe flag placement practices that allow us to honor our fallen heroes without endangering our own health and safety.”
The ceremony is especially important, Brannan said, since this year is the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, and local World War II vets are now left with no Memorial Day events because of the virus. Given the crisis, city officials have also elected to cancel the borough’s oldest Memorial Day tradition — the 153rd Brooklyn Memorial Day Parade, in which Brannan was slated to serve as a deputy marshal.
“We are saddened but of course understand the decision to cancel Memorial Day parades across the country as we continue to battle this virus and adjust to this new reality,” Brannan told Brooklyn Paper. “Memorial Day may be different this year, but our thoughts remain the same — especially as our nation commemorates the end of WWII — that the country we love, in good times and bad, in sickness and in health, was only made possible through the sacrifices of the brave men and women who fought for us.”
This year’s marchers were set to parade down Third Avenue — starting at 78th Street — in Bay Ridge and end with a ceremony at John Paul Jones Park on Fourth Avenue and 101st Street.
But not all hope for a commemoration is lost, said parade chairman Raymond Aalbue.
“We are gonna do something,” he said, adding that the parade committee is organizing a drive-by down Third Avenue on the holiday, ending at the Brooklyn Veterans Hospital on Poly Place near Seventh Avenue. To further commemorate the day, Aalbue said he will post photos of previous parades and links on the parade’s website and social media pages.
“We are going to try to keep it going to remember all those who paid such a terrible price for our freedom,” he said.