A national tradition seen by some Americans as a patriotic manifestation of service and sacrifice represents to others a sectarian religious symbol tantamount to desecration.
Complaints about the popular Wreath Day across America, when new evergreen wreaths are placed on the graves of military veterans in national and local cemeteries, are increasing in the weeks leading up to this year’s event, says the founder of a civil rights organization that protests practice.
“We have no problem if people reach out and want a wreath on the graves of their deceased veterans, but putting them all over the place, covering them up without the permission of the surviving families is unconstitutional, an atrocity and a disgrace,” he said. said Mikey Weinstein, Founder. of the Military Foundation for Religious Freedom.
The crucifix is at the heart of the opposition.
Weinstein, who is Jewish, and his followers — which include Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, the Jedi Church as well as Christians — believe the crown pays homage to Christianity.
“It should be an aspect of respect,” Weinstein said. “It’s almost like a fundamentalist Christian gang sign to put a symbol of the Christian Christmas season on any grave.”
Amber Caron, spokeswoman for Wreaths Across America, headquartered in Maine, said the wreaths, each made of 10 balsam branches tied with a red velvet knot, are veterans’ wreaths and not Christmas wreaths.
“We don’t ‘decorate graves’ but honor American heroes,” she said.
The idea of laying wreaths at the graves of fallen servicemen began informally at Arlington National Cemetery in December 1992, when a family that owned a wreath-making business in Maine donated their remains. at the Army-run cemetery in Virginia.
Since becoming a nonprofit in 2007, Wreaths Across America has expanded to 3,100 burial sites, including 145 of the National Cemetery Administration’s 154 properties, Caron said.
Individuals as well as groups such as American Legion Posts and Scouting programs contributed $24.9 million to Wreaths Across America in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2020, according to tax forms.
Volunteers are expected to lay nearly 2 million wreaths at the graves during this year’s celebration on December 18.
The mission, Caron said, is to remember all the dead, honor those who serve in the military and their families, and teach the next generation the value of freedom.
Weinstein calls the custom proselytizing.
“To say it’s not a Christian symbol is absurd,” he said. “Imagine if it was an atheist, satanic or Jewish symbol.”
Throughout history, crowns have been associated with the symbolism of various cultures, including paganism, and often denote the spiritual belief in eternal life and rebirth of the spirit.
Weinstein’s organization requested in 2014 that Wreaths Across America not place wreaths on the gravestones of fallen service members that display the Jewish Star of David, known in Hebrew as Magen David.
Leaving live flowers or wreaths on tombstones is not normally a Jewish ritual.
In 2017, a photo circulated with a wreath from the program leaning on a headstone with a Star of David.
Some Jewish families request the wreaths, Caron said, and sometimes volunteers unwittingly place them on a grave with the Jewish star.
Wreaths Across America’s official policy states that the organization “is not affiliated with any religion or political opinion,” she pointed out.
The program follows cemetery policies that allow for the annual remembrance ceremony, Caron said.
In cemeteries that don’t have a formal policy, volunteers “do not lay wreaths on headstones in graves marked with the Star of David, out of respect for Jewish custom,” the organization’s policy states.
“We just pause and pay homage. The only exception is when the families of the deceased request a wreath and then their wishes are honored.
The National Cemetery Administration honors that policy “to the best of our abilities,” said Michael Brophy, superintendent of the Fort Logan National Cemetery complex in Denver, which has more than 105,000 graves.
The federal agency allows Wreaths Across America to lay wreaths at gravesites, but does not perform any program functions, Brophy said. Volunteers do.
But cemetery staff are checking graves to see if any graves are incorrectly marked, Brophy said.
Anyone with concerns about grave decorations or other issues should contact the cemetery, he said. Fort Logan maintains a list of requests regarding these issues, Brophy said, and honors them.
“As a general rule, of course, for any reason of concern, we try to try to come to a mutual accommodation and respect the wishes of the families of buried loved ones,” Brophy said.
Weinstein said his organization has received thousands of grievances since Wreaths Across America went nationwide 15 years ago.
This year, the office received “an overwhelming number of complaints,” Weinstein said, producing hundreds of angry phone calls, letters and emails about the program.
He asks cemeteries to require permission from families instead of a withdrawal system to fix the problem.
Fort Logan, a national cemetery under the auspices of the Department of Veterans Affairs, has received no complaints, Brophy said.
“It seems to be very popular,” he said of the wreath laying event, which this year raised enough money for volunteers to lay 12,000 wreaths at Fort Logan in a rotation. annually so that all graves are periodically covered.
He expects up to 2,000 volunteers for the public ceremony which begins at 10 a.m. on December 18.
The United States Air Force Academy will lay donation wreaths at the 1,350 graves at the military installation in Colorado Springs for the eighth time, spokesman Dean J. Miller said.
Wreaths were donated through contributions from Americans across the country, he said, and arrive from the Air Force Services Agency in San Antonio, Texas. No taxpayer money was used for the wreaths, he said.
“No religious affiliation is associated with the Academy wreaths and all requests for removal of these honors received from families of veterans interred at the Academy Cemetery are honored,” Miller said in an email.
The academy’s mortuary affairs officer said that in almost 30 years in her position, she had “never received a request for removal from the families of buried veterans”.
The $15 wreath sponsorship exceeded the goal of covering all 2,600 gravesites at Pikes Peak National Cemetery this year, Wreaths Across America Cemetery Coordinator Jennifer Kendig said.
She is a member of the American Legion Ladies Auxiliary at Falcon.
“So many people come out to support this event because it means so much to honor veterans who have passed away,” Kendig said. “It’s moving to see.”
The fundraiser has generated enough money to buy more than 3,000 wreaths this year, with the excess donated to other cemeteries in the area or applied to next year’s ceremony, she said. .
Sponsoring organizations receive $5 for each wreath sold, a portion of which is donated to Falcon-area veteran organizations, she added.
Weinstein said he and his wife founded the organization he leads after their children attended the Air Force Academy and were victims of anti-Semitism.
Over the past 16 years, he said his organization has represented nearly 77,000 clients who object to certain military-related practices they believe have religious overtones. Most wish to remain anonymous, Weinstein said, for fear of retaliation. But he thinks they all have a right to dissent when religion – primarily Christianity – is infused into military culture and lifestyle.
“People say you’re Scrooge Weinstein, but it’s wrong and un-American to assume that every veteran wants a wreath on their grave,” he said. “These veterans gave their all for this country, and they can’t defend themselves now. We will keep fighting for them.”