Traditions disrupted by COVID-19, region still observes Memorial Day


By Dakota Antelman, Contributing Writer

Region – War memorials across the region were uncharacteristically empty May 26 as the coronavirus forced the cancellation of area ceremonies celebrating fallen American soldiers.

Historic disruptions to such time-honored traditions, the cancellations and emptiness of public space prompted unique efforts from area communities to still observe the occasion and connect with residents.

“The tradition of Grafton’s Memorial Day ceremonies is long and cherished,” Grafton Select Board chair Jennifer Thomas said in a pre-recorded message. “This year…we must find new ways to honor our fallen military.”

Thomas’ message was one of several broadcast to Grafton residents in a roughly 40 minute presentation format that at least three other area communities mirrored.

Organized through the Central Massachusetts Veterans District advocacy group, public access producers in Northborough, Shrewsbury, Westborough and Grafton edited comments from elected officials alongside national anthem renditions and more to create town-specific recreations of the somber events typically held on this holiday.

In those, leaders spoke to consistent themes of sacrifice that run through all Memorial Day celebrations.

“We’re here to remember those who sacrificed, who said, I’ll sign up to protect your freedoms….,” said State Rep.Danielle Gregoire, whose district includes portions of Northborough, Westborough and Marlborough. “We honor them. We salute them. And we say thank you.”

As Gregoire and her state and local lawmaking colleagues spoke on such service and sacrifice, they also did not shy away from the present situation.

Massachusetts’ coronavirus cases climbed past 90,000 over the weekend. Locally, the Community Advocate coverage area has accounted for roughly 2,000 of those since the crisis first hit here in mid-March.

Acknowledging the persistent threat, veterans’ departments moved beginning last month to cancel planned mass gathering events for Memorial Day.

That being said, almost all area communities still laid wreaths at memorials and planted flags at veterans’ gravesites, while members of the Central Mass. Veterans Districts went further with their aforementioned web-casts.

“As we gather today, we do so while under siege by an enemy incursion on American soil far different from the type of enemy we typically envision in the context of military service,” Northborough Select Board Chair Jason Perrault said in his town’s presentation. “The impacts are many and are not yet fully realized.”

Further evoking ties between the COVID-19 crisis and the military fights that claimed the lives of local soldiers, Perrault issued a call to action to residents and all viewers of his presentation.

“Let us draw upon [these veterans’] examples of leadership, courage and sacrifice and apply it to the challenge that now confronts us,” he said.

A Memorial Day unlike any other, leaders from across the region were strong in their resolve to not let such isolation become a new normal. Once COVID-19 fades into history, Gregoire in particular promised, towns like Northborough will see “a bigger parade than ever before.”

“We’re not having parades this year,” Gregoire said. “…but we’re all in this together. And I look forward to a time when we can come together and do this celebration the way we’ve always done it and the way we will continue to do it.”

(Photos, video by/Dakota Antelman)

A bundle of flowers lays at the base of Northborough’s Gulf War memorial on its town common.
A bundle of flowers lays at the base of Northborough’s Gulf War memorial on its town common.
A suspended American flag waves over the Shrewsbury town common.
A wreath lays in the patio before Southborough’s Veteran’s Memorial. Commonly full of visitors on Memorial Day, the area was empty this year.
The statue at Marlborough’s Veteran’s Memorial overlooks a pedestal dotted with photos of fallen soldiers who called the city home. Its usual parade cancelled, Marlborough still decorated its memorial sites.