Reality Makes the Best Fantasy: Memorial Day

Graves at Arlington on Memorial Day

I live by a cemetery. It’s right on the other side of my backyard, behind a wooden and a barbed wire fence. This means that we will hear the 21-gun salute on Monday. For many people, Monday will be a day off from work or school, the unofficial kick-off for summer. Many department stores will have items on discount and the grocery stores will have all the consumables you’ll need for your grill on sale. Maybe your town has a fireworks show.

And if you live by a cemetery you’ll hear that 21-Gun Salute.

Memorial Day in America is a time to remember those who have fallen in service to protect their country. In other countries, the day for the fallen soldiers is called “Remembrance Day.” Our own Memorial Day was formally called “Decoration Day,” a reference to the decorating of the graves, usually by women for their dead husbands, sons, relatives and neighbors.

Since World War I, Memorial Day has been the time to honor all soldiers who have fallen in battle, but the very first observances happened after the Civil War, the Union and the Confederates each having their own customs and observances. The Civil War resulted in an estimated 750,000 people dead. Everyone knew loss. The earliest known honoring of the fallen happened on May 1st, 1865 in Charleston, SC when a group of Freedmen exhumed and reburied a group of 257 Union soldiers who had died while Prisoners of War. The soldiers were given a proper funeral that included the singing of songs, praying, and leaving rose petals on the graves. The final resting place had been landscaped beforehand and an arch labeled “Martyrs of the Race Course” was erected. Soldiers, women, children, teachers and missionaries were all involved in honoring those who had died, the Freedmen feeling the sacrifice made for them and the cause of the end of slavery. You can read more about it on Wikipedia or here at US Slave.

In 1868, General John A. Logan proclaimed that “Decoration Day” should be observed nationwide and, over the next few years, more locations began to hold events for the holiday, sponsored by the Woman’s Relief Corp. It was observed on May 30th because no battle had previously been fought on that date. National Cemetaries such as Gettysburg and Arlington were founded and by 1870 some 300,000 Union soldiers had been reinterred in 73 national cemeteries. The holiday quickly gained a foothold in the North while the South held their own observances as the region dealt with the condition they were left in. For years, Memorial Day was used not only to recognize those fallen but to demonize previous enemies. The end of the Civil War didn’t mean the end of the differences between the North and the South. At the same time, it also brought people together across religion and race in the North as many had fought side by side, the sacrifice of the fallen erasing the differences between the living.

America has taken part in other wars since then, conflicts which took people’s lives and affected how America saw itself as a nation. After WWI, Memorial Day was a day to remember all American soldiers, since the war in Europe meant whether from the North, South, Midwest or West Coast, you were an American fighting. Memorial Day is observed the nation over with flags flown at half-mast from dawn till noon for the fallen and raised for the second part of the day to honor those alive and still serving. Events both celebratory and somber take place, and many families come together and barbecue, enjoying the time off. In remembering those who have served and fallen, the country recognizes a common history.

Most countries have conflict in their histories, either internal or external, and those who seek to either keep peace or make war will have armies. How does a country’s military history and remembrance of those who died in combat factor into your world?

For GMs

  • What is the military history of the region? Were the conflicts internal or external? Were the conflicts over concrete things such as land or ideas/ideals?
  • Are there smaller groups of people within the nation who have more of a military history than others in the general population? Which groups hold  soldiers in higher esteem? Why?
  • What types of people are in the military? Do people volunteer? Are people drafted? How are soldiers chosen? Is being in the military a career or something people do for a few seasons or years?
  • How do different people groups recall different conflicts? Do they all mean the same thing to the populations? Or are there differences in history/opinion? Do they honor their fallen differently?
  • How have belligerent casualties affected families? Industries?
  • Are wars and conflicts solely affairs of the state? The church? Both? Is there a ‘civil religion,’ a patriotism that is a part of the everyday culture?
  • Is there a deity of soldiers? Armies? War? Just causes?
  • Is there still animosity between the parties involved in past wars? How long ago did these conflicts happen? Have any other wars or conflicts happened to lessen the animosity?
  • Do soldiers receive special burials? Who oversees them? Members of the clergy? Family members? What are the burial practices for those who have served/fallen in combat?
  • Are there national cemeteries, where any soldier can be interred? Or can only soldiers who have fallen in battle be buried there?
  • How far are the battlegrounds from where civilians live? How far are military outposts from where civilians live? What is the civilian exposure to war and how does it affect their view of soldiers?
  • How do surrounding nations and areas view soldiers?
  • Are people proud to have soldiers in their families?
  • Is there a day for remembering fallen soldiers? How is this day celebrated/observed?
  • How does the civilian population regard soldiers? Soldiers who have fallen battle?

Plot Hooks

  • After a battle that has left many dead but the region victorious, the PCs are allowed leave on one condition: they return the remains of several fallen soldiers to their families. Who do the remains belong to? What exactly are they being asked to take? How do the families react? Does everyone along the way home support their cause?
  • News from the front lines says that fallen soldiers are being interred by the enemy not fitting the precepts and traditions of the PCs. The PCs must slip behind enemy lines to perform last rites or bring the remains back for proper burial. How are the dead being buried? Is it respectful according to the traditions of the enemies?
  • When the spirits of fallen soldiers are seen on an ancient battlefield, the PCs are sent to investigate. What is the nature of the spirits? Why are they rising now? What do they want? How to the locals feel about them?
  • When the local government wants to start a registry of soldiers who fought in the last major conflict as well as those who never returned, the PCs are sent from town to town to identify and catalog these people. The government says anyone who registers and shows proof of having fought will be rewarded for their service. What will the veterans be given? Do the veterans readily step forward? Do they want the reward? How do civilians feel about the benefits? Are the soldiers wary of the gift or feel deserving?
  • The local government observes the legacy of fallen soldiers with a parade in the capitol. News that a fringe political/religious/social group will seek to disturb the parade reach the PCs. Do they try to stop them? Do they warn anyone? What will be the nature of the disturbance? What will it mean if the disturbance happens?
  • While patrolling the border, the PCs come across a dying soldier from a foreign land. Before the individual dies they ask the PCs to give them a proper burial. The only problem is the PCs have no idea what that would entail. What clues does the soldier give them before dying? How did the soldier arrive there? Do the PCs comply? Who might come looking for the soldier? How was the soldier injured in the first place?
  • When an outspoken priest protests that the remembrance of fallen soldiers has become too political, he is exiled by the government and the PCs must escort him to the border. How does the religious figure think the dead should be remembered? Do the PCs believe him? How do civilians feel about the priest’s insistence? How do soldiers feel? Is the priest accused of any other crimes?

For PCs

  • Are you or have you ever been a soldier? How long did you serve?
  • Have you ever been to or seen any battles?
  • Do you have any family who has served in the military? Who have died in battle? Are you proud of them? Barely know anything about them? Ashamed of them?
  • Have you lived during a time of war or a time of peace?
  • If you’re a soldier, how do you view civilians? If you are a civilian, how do you view soldiers?
  • Do you observe a day of remembrance for fallen soldiers? All soldiers or is there a particular battle/cause you care about?

What say you? This Memorial Day, I hope that all of us, soldier and civilian alike, are safe and sound with the ones we love. My condolences to the families of those who have paid the ultimate price and my thanks to those who have served and are serving. Have a fun and safe holiday weekend!

8 thoughts on “Reality Makes the Best Fantasy: Memorial Day

Add yours

  1. The current ruler(s) are not supportive of anything to do with a war waged by their predecessor. The veterans and families of those who died are upset about this; including one or more churches. They are agitating and the retribution is getting harsher and harsher. How do the PCs feel about the recent war? Do they support the ruler or the masses? Why is the current ruler(s) disavowing the old conflict?


    1. Sewicked, thank you for adding a plot hook; wars don’t end once the battles are over. There are always issues to address by political and military leaders and plans for ‘after the war’ will often look very different from the reality.


  2. I’ve spent too long on Google+ – I just went to +1 both of your comments.

    Great plot hook, and great thoughts about the aftereffects of wars.


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