Topic: Profiles

Maine Wreaths Go to Arlington Cemetery

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Morrill Worcester began laying wreaths on the solders' graves in 1992. It's his way of remembering them.

Morrill Worcester began laying wreaths on the solders' graves in 1992. It's his way of remembering them.

Thousands of handmade Maine balsam wreaths grace row upon row of stones at Arlington National Cemetery. Each year, a different section of the 300,000-grave cemetery is designated to receive the wreaths.

Thousands of handmade Maine balsam wreaths grace row upon row of stones at Arlington National Cemetery. Each year, a different section of the 300,000-grave cemetery is designated to receive the wreaths.

All photos/art by Tom Wolff

Wreath escort is underway: wreathsacrossamerica.org. The next ceremony will take place on December 10, 2011 at 12 Noon E.S.T!

Yankee Classic from November 2007

Come with me into the center of the major media event of this day, Thursday, December 14, 2006. It’s 7:30 in the morning, and we’re at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, just outside the nation’s capital.

The sun has not yet broken through the gray sky,and you can see the breath from the reporters and photographers huddling in clusters along the leafy drive.

All the major networks are here, including CNN and Fox, as well as newspapers from as near as D.C. and as far as France and Australia. Everyone is waiting for Morrill Worcester and his 5,200 handmade balsam wreaths from Maine.

Cars are lined up outside the cemetery as far as you can see, as if awaiting entry to a big game. Beside me, a photographer from the Associated Press packs up his gear. “This will be impossible,” he says. “I can’t work like this.” He leaves.

At 8:30 the sea of media and volunteers parts, and here comes the truck, “Wreaths Across America” emblazoned on its sides, stacked floor to ceiling with the greens for the gravestones of the military dead. And now here comes the white van, with red, white, and blue stripes, carrying Morrill Worcester, his wife, Karen, and their children.

Alongside is a motorcycle escort, the Patriot Guard Riders. They’ve ridden with the Worcesters from Harrington, Maine, 750 miles down U.S. Route 1, through small towns and cities. Morrill Worcester will call the last four days “the world’s longest veterans’ parade.”

He never asked for this. He never asked for the cameras or the reporters. But Morrill Worcester will end up doing 38 interviews this week — all morning standing patiently in front of one camera or another — a ruddy, solid man of 56 wearing blue jeans and a leather jacket, quiet and unassuming, telling over and over how he came to be here.

He was a boy of 12, but already full of the entrepreneurial spirit that today has made him owner of Worcester Wreath Company, the world’s largest wreath producer. He’d won a subscription-selling contest at the Bangor Daily News, and his reward was a trip to Washington, including a visit to Arlington National Cemetery. The stark beauty of the headstones never left him. Years later, late in the Christmas season of 1992, he found he had a surplus of 4,000 fresh wreaths. He remembered Arlington. A call here, a call there, red tape was cut, and Morrill Worcester and a few volunteers trucked the wreaths to the cemetery, leaning them against the stones. It took more than six hours.

Although he wasn’t a veteran, Worcester vowed that he would never forget the sacrifices of these men and women. “Every stone represents a life and a family and a story,” he said. He’d tell people that the average age of a fallen soldier here was 21 — the age at which he’d begun his wreath business — and that he’d lived a life they never could.

He came with wreaths the next year and the next and the next, never missing a December, always without fuss or fanfare. Then a snowfall and a photo changed everything. At the end of the wreath laying in 2005, an Air Force photographer took a picture — the green wreaths, the single red bows so brilliant against the stones, the snow like a whispered prayer. Someone saw the photo and wrote these words: “Rest easy, sleep well, my brothers. / Know the line has held, your job is done. / Rest easy, sleep well. / Others have taken up where you fell, the line has held. / Peace, peace, and farewell …” The author e-mailed it to friends and family. “Pass it on,” the e-mail said.

The photo and the poem flew from one computer to another, across the country. Morrill Worcester’s quiet task of never forgetting became an Internet sensation. Phone calls and e-mails poured into Worcester Wreath. Messages from parents telling of children who’d gone to war and never returned; messages from wives, from veterans — each of them saying, Thank you. Thank you for remembering.

So many requests for memory wreaths that on this day, wreaths from Maine are being placed at more than 200 veterans’ cemeteries across the country. And right here at Arlington, 800 people are lined up, each waiting to receive a single wreath to place against a stone: the media’s photo opportunity of the day.

But let me take you away from the crowd. The smell of balsam covers all of us; our hands are sticky with sap from holding the wreaths. Here is Nancy Cox from Virginia. She has come to Arlington for the past four Decembers. On a quiet knoll, she places her wreath and says to the stone, “Thank you very much. ”

“I say the names aloud,” she says. “I say to myself, ‘When is the last time someone said this soldier’s name out loud?'”

Here is Gabriel Roy, who served in Korea. He’s standing alone with tears in his eyes. “My brothers are here,” he says. “I’ll be here one day soon.” He places his wreath beside a small headstone. “Put them by the small stones,” he says. “They were the nobodies.”

I speak with Theresa Whitehead, who came on one of three buses from North Carolina. “That man must get a lot back,” she says of Morrill Worcester, “because he gives so much. I think now we have to say thank you to him.”

I meet a man whose son died in Bosnia, and a Connecticut man who hasn’t heard from his son, a soldier stationed in Iraq, for more than a month. They’re all here, each one finding a headstone, placing a wreath, each marker saying, “In memory of … In memory of …” And for a few moments on a day in December, the words come alive.

The wreaths go from truck to stones in an hour. Morrill Worcester never sought a platform, but it found him. This year, on December 15, two trucks will bring 10,000 wreaths to Arlington. Thousands of people will line the route from Maine to Virginia to see them pass. The wreath laying will be on a Saturday, when the schools are closed. Morrill Worcester expects “5,000 people, maybe more. Who knows how many?”

Wreaths will be placed again at U.S. military cemeteries around the world. Navy ships will drop wreaths into the sea. They will flow like a river beyond sight, and it matters not what my beliefs, or yours, may be about the war in which we are engaged today, or about the wars of the past, or wars ahead. For this day is about an idea that began on a tree farm in Maine, a gift that says simply to the dead: We remember.

For details on the 2009 wreath laying: wreathsacrossamerica.org

  • From the beginning, the wreaths have never been approved to be placed on graves of veterans of non-Christian faith. Of the more than 285,000 graves there, Arlington National Cemetery researched and approved over 230,000 veterans graves to receive the honor of remembrance wreaths in 2014. 2014 was the first time all eligible veterans were honored and thanked with a remembrance wreath. Thousands of these were Jewish and other non-Christian veterans’ graves whose families have requested a wreath for their loved one over the previous decades. About 10,000 veterans are buried in Arlington each year. In 2015, 240,000 veteran graves were approved by ANC to be remembered and honored with a wreath.

  • My first thought was similar to Mr. Karol’s – not that I would not want a wreath placed on my grave or that of my loved one, but wondering about recognizing the Jews, Muslims and other non-Christian faiths who are buried in Arlington. By the time I got to the end of the story, I had realized that just because Christians have used the evergreen wreath as a holiday decoration does not make it a Christian symbol. The wreath, like the ring, is a symbol of continuity. The giving and caring spirit of Mr. Worcester and his helpers is in each wreath, and I hope the project continues, in the years to come, to recognize the service of those buried in Arlington.

  • David – Thank you for your comments. It is obvious now after learning more about the program and hearing the comments and opinions of others that I had jumped to a conclusion that should not have been jumped to. I made a comment on something that I was ignorant about – without first learning about it. My apologies to anyone else who may read this string of comments. I have personally written to Mr. Worcester to apologize. I do hope that I will be able to participate in the future.

  • The sentence starting on the 5th line should read: “We also have several individuals of the Jewish faith who take part in the wreath laying effort.”

    The sentence starting on the 8th line should read: “Now that he is cognizant of the rules, Mr. Karol is cordially invited to take part this year or in future years.”

    My apologies for not previewing my earlier comments.

  • As one who has supported the Arlington Wreath Project for many years, I wish to echo the fact that all volunteers are instructed not to place wreaths on Jewish graves. However, Mr. Karol may want to take note that many volunteers, when they see a Jewish headstone, stand in front of it and salute (if in uniform or a fellow veteran in civilian garb), say a prayer, or show some other form of respect for the veteran interred there. We also have several individuals who take part in the wreath laying effort. For example, there is a Jewish couple who have some leadership role in a Jewish organization in Miami who have been flying to Washington for the wreath laying and attendant ceremonies every year for the past several years. Now that is cognizant of the rules, Mr. Karol is cordially invited to take part this year or in future years.

  • I share the same feelings with Ms. Diaz. Plain and simple… Thank you, Mr. Worcester, for your wonderful expression of remembrance.

  • I am of no religious affiliation and I see the holiday wreath a wonderful remembrance. Everyone is not christian in America, this is true, but there are a lot of us who celebrate xmas; it’s a seasonal thing, it follows Thanksgiving and has a tree and all that stuff.

  • Mr. Allen has the date for the 2009 Wreath Laying at Arlington wrong. The date is Saturday, December 12, 2009, and Mr. Worcester will be donating over 15,000 wreaths this year. As for the headstones marked with the symbol of the Jewish faith, instructions are given to the volunteers there to help place the wreaths that they should not place a wreath on such stones. Rather they are asked to pause, read the name of the individual and other information on the stone, and to thank that person for their service and sacrifice for this country.

  • Thank you to everyone who commented. Wayne – Thank you for digging up that bit of information about the program. As I said earlier, Mr. Worcester’s heart is certainly in the right place. I’m sure he is a truly good, thoughtful man. The comments, information and varied opinions have been enlightening. My initial comment was in no way graceful, but I do not regret it as without it I would have not been exposed to the many views you all have. Thank you.
    PS – I browse yankee often for the stories of small towns, and of course the recipes…the recipes are great but not nearly as enlightening as this bit of a forum has been.

  • God Bless this wonderful man and his family. It is about remembering America’s Soilders no matter what faith or nationality. My son is presently serving this great country and I am proud of him and would love for him to be remembered.

  • Tears sprang to my eyes when I read about this man traveling all the way to Washington from Maine and laying all of these wreathes. To leave those out that are of other faiths would defeat the purpose. We are all one nation. Without trying to be insensitive to others, I don’t believe religion matters in this situation. In this case the wreath is a symbol that we will never forget these men and women.

  • Trees have no religion. Evergreen trees are a beautiful symbol of nature and life. During Maine winters, wreaths adorn doors everywhere welcoming family and guests for the whole season. Mr. Worcester is a humble man who works very hard. When he was first honored for his twelve years of voluntary service to veterans by the Maine State Organization Daughters of the American Revolution at the State Conference in Spring, 2005, he gave credit to his wife and employees for giving their time and efforts to make this effort happen every year. He disavowed responsibility and credited the efforts of the whole team in his shop in Harrington, Maine for giving their time and skills every year to produce the wreaths. He credited donated transportation for the wreaths to get to Arlington by a local trucker, as well. Mr. Worcester is a man who has seen an opportunity to say thank you to the veterans (all of them from all of the wars throughout the years). We all need to do the same thing and find opportunities to remember and thank those who have given so much for our freedom.

  • From the Wreaths Across America website under FAQ…

    Regarding wreath placement
    Prior to the wreath-laying ceremonies, cemetery administrative personnel give participants specific instructions regarding placement of wreaths. In most state/national cemeteries, participants are instructed to place wreaths only on graves bearing the Christian cross or nondenominational graves.

    Both the Arlington Wreath Project and Wreaths Across America profess no political or religious agenda – but rather wish to remember and honor our veterans during the holidays – a time of traditional family gatherings – and teach our children that we are able to do so, in peace, because of the many sacrifices made by our military men and women.

  • Mr Karol should just be greatful that Mr. Worcester is honoring ALL of our fallen soldiers, no matter their religious beliefs. We are all Americans!!!! God Bless Mr. Worcester and his company.

  • I don’t believe a wreath is a religious symbol. The wreaths are placed early in the Holiday season and to me represent a holiday season remembrance.

  • Mr. Karol, I appreciate your comment, but how is Mr. Worcester to know the religion of each and every soldier? Political correctness has long been out of control. WWII EVERY soldier was an American and their choice of religion was personal. Now religion is foisted on everyone, whether we like it or not. I am Catholic and while I appreciate the faiths of others I do not expect them to become Catholic. Mary Ann Cummings said what I mean succinctly. So just “be graceful” and appreciate the fact that you WILL be remembered, eventually.

  • Mary Ann, Thank you for reinforcing the point that people are not being forgotten. Jews feel that it is extremely important that we remember those who have passed, especially those who have no one to remember them. My point is not about honoring the dead, rather honoring them in a way that would be fitting to them as a Christian, Jew, Muslim or whatever the case may be. There is no doubt that Mr. Worcester and his family have their hearts in the right place. Perhaps the issue extends beyond a gentleman and his wreaths to a nation of predominantly Christian people who sometimes forget that we are made of many, not of one.

  • Mr Nathan Karol,This is how you chould have commented gracefully: Mr.Morrill Worcesterand family-I understand and appreciate the hugh endeavor your family does each year at Arlington National Cemetary. It is comforting to know that after I die careing people will be visiting my grave. Peace and thank you to all.

  • I don’t know how to say this gracefully but when I die (as a Jew) I don’t want someone putting a christmas wreath on my gravestone. I understand and appreciate what is being done here but if I were the family of a fallen Jewish, or Muslim or even Athiest soldier I would say thank you, but no thank you.


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