By Ruth A. Ringelstetter
On December 14, 2013, Joann and I visited Forest Hill Cemetery on a mission. Earlier in the day, wreaths had been placed on many of the veterans’ graves during the national Wreaths Across America ceremony.
It all started with one man, Morrill Worcester, who owns the Worcester Wreath Company in Harrington, Maine. He had won a trip to Washington D.C. when he was 12, and one of the places he visited on that trip was Arlington National Cemetery. It made such an impression on him that, in 1992, when he found himself with excess wreaths towards the end of the Christmas season, he arranged to have them placed on the graves of veterans in one of the oldest sections of graves at Arlington.
A trucking company volunteered to transport the wreaths all the way to Arlington and members of the local American Legion and VFW Posts gathered to decorate the wreaths with traditional red, hand-tied bows. The wreaths were laid at the graves by members of the Maine State Society of Washington D.C. That first wreath laying included a special ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
The annual wreath laying went on quietly until 2005 when a photographer posted a photo to the Internet of rows of graves adorned with wreaths at Arlington National Cemetery. The photograph generated national interest, and thousands of requests came from all over the country. People wanted to help at Arlington, or to start the same wreath laying at their own State and National Veterans cemeteries.
It was not possible for Worcester to donate thousands of wreaths to each state, so he began sending seven wreaths to every state, one for each branch of the military and for POW/MIAs. In 2006, the Civil Air Patrol and other civic organizations helped to coordinate the simultaneous laying of wreaths at over 150 locations around the country. That year, the Patriot Guard Riders volunteered to escort the wreaths to Arlington. That began the annual “Veterans Honor Parade” that travels the east coast from Maine to Virginia in early December.
By this time, it was apparent that there was more interest in remembering and honoring our country’s veterans than just Arlington, and it was bigger than this one company could take on.
In 2007, the Worcester family, veterans groups, and other individuals who had helped with the annual Christmas wreath ceremony at Arlington formed Wreaths Across America. The mission is simply “Remember. Honor. Teach.”
In 2008, the wreath laying ceremonies had expanded to over 300 locations in every state, Puerto Rico, and 24 overseas cemeteries. Over 100,000 wreaths were laid, and over 60,000 volunteers participated. That year, December 13, 2008 was unanimously voted by the US Congress as “Wreaths Across America Day.”
By 2010, the number of wreaths had grown to over 220,000, and the number of locations had grown to 545, including the Pearl Harbor Memorial, Bunker Hill, Valley Forge, and the sites of the September 11 tragedies. It was accomplished by 902 fundraising groups, corporate contributions, donations of trucking and shipping, and the help of thousands of volunteers.
The wreath laying is still held annually on the second or third Saturday in December. The goal for most of the cemeteries is to lay a wreath at each gravestone, but they need more donations to make that happen.
If you are near a National cemetery or a cemetery with a Soldiers’ Lot, stop in and pay your respects at the veterans’ graves. You won’t soon forget the sight of the rows and rows of identical gravestones, and the wreaths laying at many.