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Decoration Day and Memorial Day

How will you celebrate Memorial Day?  In recent years, the last Monday in May opened summer.  It offered a three-day weekend to get together with friends and family.  A time to bring out boats and hit the water.  A time to set up tents and cook over a camp fire. 

            Memorial Day weekend is also the time to place flowers on graves of those we have loved.  Some cemeteries host services: an old-time-religion singing, prayers, and preaching.  Some families gather at cemeteries for reunions and to enjoy a meal together. When I was a child, Grannie told me about dinner-on-the-ground gatherings and I imagined a platter of fried chicken set on the ground and eating at chicken leg while sitting beside tombstones.  One time when Grannie and Dad talked of these gatherings, it was mentioned that quilts were spread on the ground under shade trees away from the graves and fried chicken was served on a platter. I was glad to learn that the food platters didn’t actually touch the ground.

            Does anyone else remember this national holiday being called Decoration Day?  In 1868, after the Civil War, a leader of an organization of Northern Civil War veterans, General John A. Logan, proclaimed a national day of remembrance.  He stated, “The 30th of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land.”

            On that first Decoration Day, General James Garfield, then a U. S. representative from Ohio, made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery, and 5,000 participants decorated the graves of the 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers buried there.  The 1868 celebration inspired other communities to remember, to memorialized deceased soldiers, and the term Memorial Day was coined.  By 1890, every state had made this day an official state holiday.

         After World War I, 1914-1918, all those who’d lost their lives during wars were honored during Decoration Day services.  I couldn’t find information that explained why graves of people who weren’t soldiers were decorated nor when this tradition began.  I can only imagine Grannie and her two sisters laying fresh-cut roses on their grandfathers’ graves and doing the same for their grandmothers.  In the mid-1950s, I tagged along with my parents and grandparents as they decorated the graves of their loved ones. 

         In 1971, U S Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act and established that Memorial Day, which it was most commonly called then, be celebrated the last Monday of May. Each year, since 1868, Memorial Day is commemorated at Arlington National Cemetery and a small American flag is placed on each grave.  This year soldiers will place approximately 220,000 flags near headstones.

         Memorial Day probably won’t be celebrated with large gatherings as in past years, but I’ll follow the tradition set by my grandparents and parents and place flowers on their graves.  It’s a time to reflect, to remember, to be grateful to those we’ve loved.  I’m glad this tradition lives on.


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