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TOWNSEND — Memorial Day is often thought of as the three-day weekend that officially begins summer, which has led some people to forget the day’s importance.

Memorial Day is meant to remember all the lives lost and the sacrifices made to ensure freedom in the United States.

During the Civil War, organized women’s groups decorated the graves of fallen soldiers with flowers, wreaths and flags. A few years later, Major Gen. John A. Logan, of the Grand Army of the Republic, declared that the fallen soldiers from the Civil War would be officially honored on May 30, 1868. It was named Decoration Day. It wasn’t until World War I that Decoration Day was expanded to honor all fallen soldiers and sailors.

As time passed, people began referring to Decoration Day as Memorial Day, to highlight the act of remembering all military sacrifices. In 1971, Congress declared Memorial Day as a federal holiday, to be observed on the last Monday of May.

Townsend’s celebration of Memorial Day on Sunday was filled with tradition and respect, and focused on members of the armed forces who made the ultimate sacrifice.

“Freedom is our birthright, and yet paid for with the lives of those who lived scarcely long enough to taste it,” said the Rev. Kevin Patterson from the First Baptist Church of West Townsend.

Patterson gave the opening prayer at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Park in West Townsend at 1 p.m.

The park was filled with members of Townsend VFW Post 6538, American Legion Post 199, the Townsend Military Band, the Fire/EMS Department, Townsend Minutemen, Board of Selectmen and town administrator, numerous Scout groups and Holly’s Bunch.

Everyone was there, formally dressed, to take part in the ceremony.

“This is tradition,” said Selectman Robert Plamondon.

“I’ve done this for six years,” said Boy Scout Patrick Coit. “It’s the actual memorialization of the people who help protect us, give us the rights that we need.”

“It’s just nice to see the kids honor the people who died for us,” said Troop 871 Scout Leader Bruce Williams.

Williams said the local Scouts have close ties to military service after three previous Scouts enlisted in the military.

The current military situation in Iraq was fresh in some minds during the ceremony because of daily casualty reports reminding Americans of the sacrifices made by the troops.

“Thank God we haven’t had to have this in honor of one of our home boys,” said retired Navy officer Theresa Morse, whose friend was sent to Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War and died in an accident.

“We have 12 seniors (from North Middlesex Regional High School) going into the service after graduation,” said Morse. “I don’t want to see another gold star on our town plaque.”

Patterson closed the first prayer by saying, “May our troops return safely to their families and rejoice in your goodness, giving thanks to you for your unending mercy.”

The Townsend Military Band played the Star-spangled Banner as people looked toward the American flag.

The American Legion Post 199 Firing Squad, wearing white helmets and belts, took formation and waited for the command. Three volleys were fired, followed by the playing of Taps.

Then the assembly of people formed into a parade to march east along Main Street. The patriotic music played by the marching military band lightened the steps of the parade marchers after the solemn event.

Onlookers watched the parade from their homes and businesses. Some people waved flags, while others rendered a more formal salute.

Once the parade passed, the onlookers stood and joined at the end of the line. By the time the parade reached the Canal Street bridge, it had doubled in length. The crowd filled the bridge and the river banks.

In honor of those who have died at sea, a boat decorated in red, white and blue emerged from underneath the bridge, dropping bouquets of flowers into the water.

“Our thoughts turn seaward,” said Patterson, “where burial beneath the waves has dignified the noble service and sacrifice of countless souls. They have no tomb of stone, nor grave of earth to grace with blossoms red, nor marble tablet on which to etch their honored names; no place to mourn them this day but here, at water’s edge.”

The band played again, an order was given, and three shots were fired into the air. The empty brass casings were collected and then dropped into the water below.

The parade continued to the Riverside Cemetery. There, World War II Navy veteran Robert Tumber stood holding a decorated wreath, assisted by Girl Scout Vanessa Boisse and Boy Scout Patrick Coit.

Patterson led the prayer.

“In the history of the United States, more than a million people have given their lives in the service of this country, over 600,000 in battle. We offer to you, Oh Lord, our humble thanks for their sacrifice; to honor them, our assembly and solemn procession this day; and for all who mourn, our heartfelt prayers,” said Patterson.

Another volley was fired. Taps was played and a wreath was placed under the American flag.

After a moment of silence, the parade disbanded to reconvene at the Spaulding Memorial Elementary School in Townsend center at 2:30.

Some kids ran and picked up the empty shell casings left by the firing squad. Other families walked the cemetery, decorating graves marked with American flags.

“It’s a very moving ceremony,” said Patterson, who has been involved for 13 years. “I wish more people recognized the value of the experience.”

The West Townsend parade was followed by a parade in Townsend center. Departing from Spaulding Memorial School, another ceremonyl for servicemembers lost at sea was held at the Main Street bridge, led by Reverend Joan-Anne Westfall, a ceremony was held at Memorial Hall with the customary placing of a memorial wreath, then an invocation by Reverend Shawn Allen took place once the parade reached Hillside Cemetery.

The last stop was the Townsend Common where a Boy Scout read the Gettysburg Address and a Girl Scout read the poem “Flanders Field” before the parade concluded.

People gathered on the common to enjoy barbecued chicken cooked by Townsend firefighters and listen to the Townsend Military Band concert which lasted into the early evening.

“The least we can do is take the time to recognize their sacrifices,” said Patterson. “If someone hasn’t experienced this, they should definitely take the time next year.”