I don’t remember my parents ever using the term “Memorial Day” except when referring to the Indianapolis 500 mile race.
May 30 was “Decoration Day”.
Although Indiana, along with most other states, had recognized Memorial Day as a holiday since the 1890s, the United States Congress would not make it an official holiday until 1971.
At the same time, the day of memorial was moved from May 30 to the last Monday in May and designated by an act of Congress as a day to honor those who have died in service to our country.
I guess my family called the day “Decoration Day” because – like many southern Indiana residents – our ancestors had migrated here from Virginia and the Carolinas, via Kentucky, in the early to mid-19th century.
Decoration Day had been observed on May 30 in many parts of the South since colonial times. The day was not primarily focused at the time on honoring fallen soldiers. The focus was on families in general and on the memory and honor of relatives buried in private and religious cemeteries.
Each May, families and congregations mow, clean and “decorate” the cemeteries. Gravestones of deceased family members and friends have been cleared. On May 30, family members brought flowers to the graves, and in many church cemeteries, members gathered for worship and a meal.
At the end of the American Civil War, various groups in various states independently began promoting the day as a time to honor soldiers and sailors who had been killed in action.
No one knows for sure who coined the term “Memorial Day.”
Some scholars say Southern women in several states formed organizations to honor their deceased sons and husbands and superimposed the name on the already established Decoration Day.
Additionally, one of the first “memorial” commemorations took place in May 1865 when free African Americans in Charleston, South Carolina gathered to rebury former Union POWs in a cemetery. created to honor their fight against slavery.
Memorial Day, as a day set aside by law to remember and honor the men and women who died in the service of our country, remains one of our nation’s major holidays today. It is as it should be.
Observance of what was once Decorating Day – a day to honor friends and loved ones simply for being our friends and loved ones – has meanwhile waned.
Of course, many families and individuals — especially those in rural communities — continue to “decorate” family graves on Memorial Day. But any observer with more than a few decades of memory can hardly deny that the practice is greatly diminished.
The meticulously trimmed grass, cleared headstones and a sea of flowers that I remember from my childhood in my own family cemetery in Johnson County become more memory than reality.
My parents and my elders once took part in a family association which met each year to organize and contribute financially to the upkeep of our cemetery. Each year’s meeting was followed by a family reunion and a pitch-in dinner.
Today, the flowers are few. Some years the graveyard grass isn’t even mowed by Memorial Day. The possibility of younger generations carrying on decorating day family traditions seems remote.
And, I have to admit, I don’t visit the cemetery or “decorate” the family graves as often as I used to – in any of the cemeteries where my family members are buried.
Perhaps decoration day has just run its course in a form unrelated to the honor of our military. And I guess the reasons go beyond the instinctive accusations from many grumpy old folks that “young people today have no respect.”
The evolution of funerary practices certainly played a role. According to the Cremation Association of North America, cremations now make up nearly 60% of Americans’ final arrangements. That compares to just 3.6% in 1960. (Where do you go to honor the windscattered ashes?)
Declining participation in organized religion also likely plays a role, along with the closure of many small rural churches.
Population mobility may be another reason. Many people no longer live in places where generations of their families are buried.
Some say the weakening of family ties is another.
Whatever the cause, rituals are important. Nations build unity around them. I fear the loss of Decoration Day is the loss of something greater than simply laying flowers on a loved one’s grave.
Bud Herron is a retired editor and newspaper publisher who lives in Columbus. He was editor of The Republic from 1998 to 2007. Send your comments to [email protected]