Shirley Cowart shed tears as her husband’s name was read aloud Monday during a memorial service at Evergreen Memorial Park and Mausoleum.

Alvin Cowart, an Air Force veteran who served in the Korean War, died on Memorial Day 2013.

Cowart joined more than 50 people honoring deceased veterans during the hour-long ceremony that featured prayers, poems and the reading of 166 names of local veterans who died in 2013.

“Our veterans give it all,” Cowart said as one of her reasons for attending the annual event. “What greater sacrifice is there than to give your life?”

Denham Springs Mayor Jimmy Durbin reminded the crowd that Memorial Day is “a solemn day to recognize our veterans who have given their lives.”

An empty casket was placed in front of the speakers. The casket represented the final resting place of veterans, said Vance Sutton with the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 7017.

As Alvin Alan, 78, looked at the casket, he said he began to think about his life and what he would have liked had he not survived his stint in the Vietnam War.

“I was thinking what I would want if I was in the grave,” Alan said. “What I would want is something like this — to be remembered.”

Annick Maurouer brought her two children, Ava, 3, and Aiden, 5, to Monday’s service.

“I wanted them to see their grandfather (a member of the VFW), and I wanted them to actually understand what Memorial Day is all about,” she said.

Mike McKey, of Denham Springs, said he recalled the friends he had served with in Vietnam.

“I remember a lot of my friends passing away and dying right in front of me,” McKey, 64, said.

“I’m glad to see they’re supporting the veterans that passed away and the ones that are still here,” he said.

McKey said when he returned to the United States following the Vietnam War, “people called us baby killers.”

“We’re just now getting the recognition we deserve,” he said.

Despite watching his comrades die, McKey said the experience is something he would do all over again.

“I’m proud of all of the veterans,” McKey said. “I’m just sad that not all of the guys are here to see this (memorial service.)”

The program concluded with a moment of silence, a 21-gun salute and taps.

Sutton, who helped organize the event, said Memorial Day got its roots three years after the Civil War ended when on May 5, 1868, the head of an organization of Union veterans — the Grand Army of the Republic — established Decoration Day on May 30 as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers. The first large observance was held that year at Arlington National Cemetery across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C.

Local observances claiming to be the first local springtime tributes to the Civil War dead had been held in various places. One of the first occurred in Columbus, Miss., April 25, 1866, when a group of women visited a cemetery to decorate the graves of Confederate soldiers who had fallen in battle at Shiloh.

In 1966, Congress and President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo, N.Y., the “birthplace” of Memorial Day. There, a ceremony on May 5, 1866, honored local veterans who had fought in the Civil War. Businesses closed and residents flew flags at half-staff. By the end of the 19th century, Memorial Day ceremonies were being held on May 30 throughout the nation, but it was not until after World War I, however, that the day was expanded to honor those who have died in all American wars, Sutton said. In 1971, Memorial Day was declared a national holiday by an act of Congress. It was then also placed on the last Monday in May, as were some other federal holidays.

“It’s an exciting day,” Cowart said. “People just don’t stop to realize what it really means.”

Following the ceremony, Cowart, Jessica Heath and Brenda Graham released 21 mylar balloons in to the air.

“It’s for the 21-gun salute,” Cowart said as she gazed up at the sky.