A photographer pays homage to her grandfather by documenting a local flag placement ceremony.
by Addie Ladner | photography by S.P. Murray
“In Flanders Fields, the poppies blow. Between the crosses, row on row.”
These lines come from a poem titled Flanders Field, written by John McRae during World War I. Photographer S.P. Murray hears them in her head as she approaches the annual Memorial Day Flag Ceremony of the American Legion Post 6 at the Chapel Hill Memorial Cemetery. In 2012, Murray was invited by a legion member to attend and photograph the event in its early-morning beauty. On assignment or not, she’s photographed it since.
Murray’s paternal grandfather was killed in World War II. His gravesite is thousands of miles away at the Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery and Memorial just outside the village of Henri-Chapelle, Belgium. Each year, taking a moment to remember his sacrifice is her way of saying thank you. “When I photograph the Flag Placement Ceremony, I do it because I believe that someone, on the other side of the world, is placing a flag at my grandfather’s grave, saluting and saying his name out loud,” Murray says.
Every Saturday before Memorial Day, members of American Legion Post 6 and Veterans of Foreign Wars C. V. Cummings Chapel Hill Post 9100 congregate around six in the morning to respectfully place flags on graves of the deceased, exemplifying their loyalty to the fallen. Boy Scouts and other community members also join to help memorialize around 500 deceased veterans, carpeting the cemetery in red, white and blue. After placing a flag near the headstone, they step back, say the deceased soldier’s name, then give a formal salute. Murray says that, for many who have passed, “it’s the only time all year their name is spoken out loud.”
While these days Memorial Day is often recognized with parades and barbecues, the holiday’s origins stem from this simple tradition of placing a flag at a fallen soldier’s grave. Originating in the South, it used to be called Decoration Day. During the Civil War, widows would place flowers on graves of lost heroes. The Chapel Hill American Legion Post 6 has been honoring this tradition for 20 years and is one of the oldest American Legions in both the state and country.
“For me, it’s the biggest, most important event of the year,” says Lee Heavlin, post member and Navy veteran, of the ceremony. “It’s our opportunity to show that this national holiday has a purpose on a local level.”
Serving New Soldiers
The American Legion was founded on four pillars: support for veterans at home and troops overseas, Americanism and children and youth. The Chapel Hill American Legion Post 6 maps to these pillars in myriad ways, like helping returning veterans navigate benefits, raising money for the Fisher House Foundation and serving as a community space. They recently opened a new 15,000 square-foot facility. Sitting on 128 acres of farmland, it offers something for everyone, including a gym, game room, ballroom, outdoor space and more.
“Today, less than one percent of our population serves in the military—at one time, it was eight out of ten men,” says Heavlin. “When they come home, people don’t understand.” Veterans can feel isolated, and also have to navigate families, jobs and societal obligations. They hope this new post will support veterans’ unique needs. “People typically don’t join American Legion until their 50s because it’s hard to devote extra time to the military with kids and a job,” says Navy veteran and post commander William Munsee. “Our goal with this new post is to attract and
support younger people.”