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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.


Stories Told at Cemeteries


Screen Shot 2016-05-26 at 9.55.59 AM  I was just a young child, about 6, the first time I remember walking in a cemetery. I tagged along with Dad and Granny, Dad’s mother, to place flowers on Granny’s parents’ graves. Mom had cut yard flowers –roses, iris, snowball blossoms – and arranged them in a vase. The Rich Cemetery, a small and private graveyard, had been a part of Granny’s parents’ farm, near the Moodyville community in Pickett County, when the land was deeded to be a cemetery.

Then Mom and Dad took me to Lovelady Cemetery to decorate the graves of Mom’s grandparents. The one thing I remember: walk around the graves, not on them. As a child, I certainly didn’t want to step on dead people. I didn’t know anybody buried in either cemetery. My parents’ grandparents were just as removed from me as the person buried in a grave marked only by a triangle-shaped limestone rock and thirty feet from the other graves in the Rich Cemetery. Those visits to cemeteries were carefree, outside times.

In 1974, my maternal grandfather died suddenly from a heart attack and was buried in the Lovelady cemetery next to his parents. A few years later Dad’s mother was buried in the Story Cemetery in Byrdstown. But I never regularly visited cemeteries until after Mom’s death in 1991. That’s when I began making the ‘decoration rounds’ with Dad. How I cried and hated to stand beside Mom’s grave. But during those yearly trips I’ve learned more about the people whose graves I walk around.

A black man named Toby was buried in the unnamed grave at the Rich Cemetery. He was a slave before coming to Pickett County in the late 1800s. He didn’t have a family, lived around town, and died about 1912, the year Dad was born. My Granny’s brother-in-law requested that Toby be buried in the family cemetery, and about ten years ago my cousin had a stone, with Toby’s name, placed at his grave.

Dad’s favorite uncle is buried near his grandparents. Uncle Scott was a farmer and sold corn to other hog farmers. He put most of his money in the local bank in the 1920s and lost it during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Aunt Doris, Mom’s sister, and I went together to the Lovelady Cemetery one Memorial Day. We secured a silk arrangement on top of Papa and Grandma’s headstone and then she laid a single red rose cut from her flower bush on her grandma’s grave. Aunt Doris explained that Grandma Bertram would go to cemeteries on Decoration Day and say that all she ever wanted on her grave was one pretty fresh flower. Aunt Doris also said that because Grandma Bertram valued reading and education, she opened a community lending library in her home long before a public library came to Pickett County.

Mom and Dad chose burial plots in the Story Cemetery, near their home in Byrdstown, more than a year before Mom’s death. One day during Memorial Day weekend, Husband and I will clean the headstones and place flowers on graves at three cemeteries in Pickett County.

I’m glad to have this way to honor parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and a great uncle. Some I never knew and some I knew well and loved. How I wish I’d written more notes to remember the stories of their lives.

Memorial Day. A time to pay tribute to those who came before us.  A time to share stories. And I’ll cut one pretty fresh flower for great-Grandma Bertram’s grave.