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Families of the fallen remember in private this Memorial Day

Paul Monti visited his sons grave at the Massachusetts National Cemetery in Bourne where he placed an American flag and a Medal of Honor flag.
Paul Monti visited his sons grave at the Massachusetts National Cemetery in Bourne where he placed an American flag and a Medal of Honor flag.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Paul Monti of Raynham will visit the National Cemetery in Bourne this Memorial Day and place a flag at the grave of his son Jared, an Army sergeant who died in 2006 while trying to rescue a wounded comrade in Afghanistan.

The trip is always emotional for Monti, whose son received the Medal of Honor, but this year’s visit won’t bring the same comfort the 73-year-old usually finds at the veterans cemetery on the holiday.

It’s Memorial Day during a pandemic, and the campaign that Monti started in 2011 to place flags at each of the cemetery’s 77,000 graves has been canceled.

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“There’s a lot of sadness that we’re not able to honor the fallen,” he said. "This project is very near and dear to my heart.”

Similar to the changes at the National Cemetery, which usually attracts up to 5,000 volunteers for the flag-planting, Memorial Day will feel different across Massachusetts. And not simply because the unofficial kickoff to summer has fallen hostage to social restrictions at beaches, parks, and barbecues.

Parades have been shelved to avoid crowding and its health hazards. Speeches have gone virtual. And the mass planting of 37,000 flags on Boston Common — a striking display to honor every Massachusetts man and woman who has died in military service since the Revolution — has been dramatically scaled back.

Instead of a sea of American flags sweeping down the knoll from the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, a condensed cluster of 1,000 flags was planted before dawn on Memorial Day by a few volunteers. Each flag was placed 6 feet apart to symbolize the pandemic’s effects.

Paul Monti talked about his son, Jared, at his home in Raynham.
Paul Monti talked about his son, Jared, at his home in Raynham.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

“What we’re trying to do is hold on to that tradition of remembering and honoring. The times require a different approach,” said Thomas Crohan, president of the Massachusetts Military Heroes Fund, which organizes the annual tribute. “The core of what we always have done — remembering and honoring — is the same.”

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Instead of a service on the Common, where the names of 337 Massachusetts veterans who have died since 9/11 would have been read, the group held a virtual ceremony last week via Zoom. Remarks by Governor Charlie Baker, Mayor Martin J. Walsh of Boston, and other officials also were compiled on a video.

Massachusetts Military Heroes this year encouraged people to recreate the power of the Boston Common tribute by placing flags in their windows and on their lawns, taking selfies with the displays, and posting pictures and videos on social media.

“We’re trying to bring community into individual homes,” said Diane Nealon, the group’s executive director, who has planted a flag garden in her front lawn.

“Young children are stopping to look. Parents with strollers, too,” Nealon said. “I think our community will just view this differently this year, and maybe take it more to heart by doing it individually.”

Monti straightened the Gold Star in a window at his home in Raynham.
Monti straightened the Gold Star in a window at his home in Raynham.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Taking the day’s solemnity to heart is not universal. For many people, Memorial Day weekend is the starting gun for summer weekends on Cape Cod, opening the cottage, and joining family and friends around the backyard grill.

But since the years after the Civil War, when individual communities began gathering in the spring to honor their war dead, the tradition spread around the country and eventually became institutionalized as the federal holiday of Memorial Day.

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Some of that meaning has been obscured over time. But not among families who see an empty space in their homes on the cusp of summer.

“For those of us who have lost someone, this is not a happy day,” Monti said. “This is a very solemn day.”

Monti displayed his son's Army boots.
Monti displayed his son's Army boots.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Stephen Zabierek of Chelmsford knows that ache. He usually reads the last 10 names at the Common ceremony, and his wife plants the last 10 flags. Their son Andrew, a Marine lance corporal, was killed in Iraq in 2004 as he responded to a mortar attack.

Andrew had been a certified financial planner, a Clemson University graduate whose life was forever altered by the 9/11 terror attacks.

“He came home that night and said he was going in. I was as shocked as anybody,” Zabierek recalled. “He followed his heart and fought for his country.”

Zabierek, 68, read Andrew’s name on Zoom this year, but he will miss the emotional power of the ceremony on the Common. Still, the Navy veteran said he won’t feel sorry for himself.

“You can’t think that way. It’s circumstances worldwide that have caused this. You can’t be selfish,” Zabierek said. “We know it’s a temporary situation and that things will get back to normal, maybe in a year or two. We’ll be all right.”

As usual, Zabierek and his wife will visit Andrew’s grave in Chelmsford. They will lay a floral display of red, white, and blue. They will honor Andrew’s sacrifice, and they will think of the service of his brother, Mark, an Air Force veteran who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.

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It’s a long tradition that includes military service by Stephen and three of his brothers, as well as both of Andrew’s grandfathers in World War II. A foundation to support Massachusetts veterans has been created in Andrew’s name.

“Veterans Day is for people who wear the uniform, and Memorial Day is for people who died wearing the uniform,” Zabierek said. “We should at least take a few minutes to remember them.”

For Monti, the run-up to this Memorial Day has been particularly stressful. “I’ve been in lockdown for six weeks in my house, and I have nowhere to go,” he said.

Paul Monti with a painting of his son, Jared.
Paul Monti with a painting of his son, Jared.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Now, the absence of thousands of volunteers at the cemetery will leave a void when Monti pays respects there to his brother and his son.

“It’s a big disappointment to all of the families and the others who come, people who have adopted this as a tradition,” Monti said. “We get every religion, every ethnic group, people from their 90s to infants to mothers with strollers. We get motorcycle groups, football and hockey teams, Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts.”

The focus of the day, this year and in the past, has been on the fallen.

“We make sure it’s totally apolitical because these soldiers weren’t political. They served with every kind of person, and everyone had each other’s back. That’s America,” Monti said.

“This year, it really kind of hurts a little extra.”

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Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com.