They sat in silent reverence amid the tombstones and fluttering U.S. flags that marked the Maple Grove Cemetery graves of those who had served their country.

On this 151st Memorial Day observance in Granville, hundreds of people – perhaps a thousand or more – dressed in red, white and blue filled the cemetery amphitheater. Young families sprawled out on blankets and elderly veterans sat in lawn chairs in the manicured cemetery on Monday, May 27, and a sense of common purpose and community filled the air.

The cemetery observance followed the traditional short parade – a military color guard, scout troops, the Daughters and Sons of the American Revolution, police and fire units and the Granville High School Marching Band – after which all of the parade-watchers fell in behind the last police vehicle so that the parade swelled for blocks.

The sense of community was so palpable, and so impressive in this small town of 5,500 people, that several of the program’s speakers implored the crowd to always remember it and never let the Memorial Day commemoration wither and die as it has in some other towns.

The Rev. Tom Pound, pastor of Spring Hills Baptist Church, gave an invocation setting the tone for the event by emphasizing the importance of community devotion.

“We make this solemn pledge: We will remember,” he said. 

Almost in answer to his call, attendees recited the Pledge of Allegiance, standing with hands over hearts and hats in hands.

In President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which he delivered on Nov. 19, 1863, during the Civil War, and which Granville High School student Sarah Soliman read on Monday, Lincoln implored all to live out the ideals of those who gave their lives for the United States: “That we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Featured speaker Jeff Gill, left, a veteran of the Marine Corps Reserve, told the crowd that “we are all being called, inch by inch, day by day, to reflect on how our part fits into the whole. To vote, to do jury duty, to tend graves or public monuments, to mentor the young and help raise up a coming generation.” Credit: Alan Miller

Featured speaker Jeff Gill, a writer, preacher, and a U.S. Marine Corps Reserve veteran from Granville, highlighted his father’s lifelong commitment to honoring the spirit of Memorial Day throughout the year – and the importance of everyone serving the United States in their own way.

“We may none of us be called to risk our lives, let alone give them, in service and devotion to our national ideals,” Gill said. “But we are all being called, inch by inch, day by day, to reflect on how our part fits into the whole. To vote, to do jury duty, to tend graves or public monuments, to mentor the young and help raise up a coming generation.”

He said that for this nation, “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all of us are created equal, to long endure, we will have to make sacrifices – of time, of resources, of our energy, and maybe most of all, our time will have to be spent consciously and intentionally and willingly, to build up our civic institutions and our community relationships, to educate the young and assist those in need.”

Gill said he is certain that life will demand a certain measure of sacrifice from all of us to bring about what the Rev. Martin Luther King, quoting philosopher Josiah Royce, called “the beloved community.” Gill said King was pointing this country, and the world, toward a possible social situation in which basic humanity and shared values might be mutually recognized and celebrated – shared values such as the Memorial Day gathering in Granville “that are the accepted rule and not the occasional exception.

Paul Wilson, of the Licking County Veterans’ Service Commission, watches the ceremony with a group of scouts. Credit: Alan Miller

“Look around – the range of ages and experiences and backgrounds. Where else would you see this?” Gill asked the crowd. “To set aside personal preference and privilege in favor of mutual encouragement and shared possibilities – that calls for sacrifice, even if in small measures. It calls, if I may use this dangerous word today, for love.”

He said that it is through love and sacrifice “that we are able to live in community in the first place, as we can learn from our earliest history down to today, through past tragedies and more recent sorrows.”

An exclamation point on that statement came during this year’s Memorial Day commemoration with a tribute to Air Force Senior Airman Brian Kody Johnson, who died in active service in Japan in November 2023. Under a blanket of solemn silence, two members of American Legion Post 398 paid tribute to the Johnson family by folding a U.S. flag and presenting it to the family, followed by bouquets from the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Dave Conner, a 68-year-old Navy veteran from Columbus and 10-year member of Post 398, said he is grateful for the annual remembrance. 

“It is special,” he said. “After Vietnam, there was no patriotism. You couldn’t be proud of your service. So, to see people come and show their appreciation, it means a lot to us.”

Gill concluded his speech by saying that “sacrifice and love are how we can come together and tolerate each other at all, and even find a place of respect and appreciation from which to regard each other – a beloved community, right here in Granville, Ohio.”

John Pitcock, commander of Post 398, read a final roll call of the 18 Granville-area veterans who died since last Memorial Day. Among them was Arnold Joseph, the last of Granville’s World War II veterans.

After the ceremony, Pitcock noted that the burial of Johnson was the first interment of an active-duty military service member in Maple Grove since the Vietnam War.

And as he surveyed the crowd, he said with pride that Post 398 exists to keep the Granville Memorial Day tradition alive.

“We don’t have a clubhouse or a bar,” he said. “This is how we serve the community.”

But he is concerned about the future of Post 398 – and by extension, the Memorial Day commemoration. He noted that the members are aging, and the American Legion needs to do more to involve young veterans. 

The Land of Legend Chorus sings the Armed Forces Medley. Credit: Alan Miller

Granville Mayor Melissa Hartfield concluded the observance with a moving call to action. 

“What I want to say to the young people…” she said, bowing her head and pausing.

A long silence filled the amphitheater as Hartfield, visibly emotional, worked to compose herself. 

“What I want to say to the young people … is that you continue this tradition,” she said about the need to carry Memorial Day forward for generations. “It is not just (about) people from 150 years ago; it is (for) people today.” 

Sarah Sollinger and Katie Corner write for write for, the nonprofit news organization of Denison University’s Journalism program, which is supported by generous donations from readers. Sign up for The Reporting Project newsletter here.