At this time of year, you might find me in a graveyard or two reconnecting with the past.
Cemeteries are frequently visited on Memorial Day, or formerly called Decoration Day. It is a time of year when a wreath or flowers adorning a grave commemorates the life of a serviceman. For our family, it’s a time of year when we remember loved ones who have passed away before us by placing a flower on their grave. It’s a way to commemorate that person’s life in our hearts and show the outside world that they are still remembered. It’s a way of paying homage to him.
Memorial Day began after the Civil War (1861-1865), when a country torn both North and South wanted to remember fallen comrades. Now what I’ve found through my research is that this federal holiday has a great history, but it wasn’t until 1971 when Congress made it official and changed its observance at last Monday in May. Before that, it was always May 30, falling on a different day every year. Making the last Monday in May Memorial Day also created a three-day weekend for the start of summer.
According to an article on www.history.com, Memorial Day was born out of necessity. David Roos writes that “After the American Civil War, the battered United States was faced with the task of burying and honoring the 600,000 to 800,000 Union and Confederate soldiers who had died in the military conflict alone. the bloodiest in American history. The first national commemoration of Memorial Day was held at Arlington National Cemetery on May 30, 1868, where Union and Confederate soldiers are buried.”
General John A. Logan, a Civil War veteran leader from the North, declared a “Decoration Day” on May 5, 1868, to “decorate” the graves of those who died in the “late rebellion “, according to www.history.com.
So my big question in this whole story is why has my family (and so many others) always decorated the graves of those who are not in the military? And, while the graves of my father, the late Stanley Lepley (a veteran of World War II), and my maternal grandfather, the late Melvin Bowman (an American cavalryman in service before World War I), have a flag Kindly placed by members of the American Legion or Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) for their service, our family takes this Memorial Day decoration for other non-military family members very seriously. Why? Where did it all start and was it just because Civil War veterans were remembered at the time and the idea spread to everyone? Well, yes and no.
According to an article on cemetery symbolism published on www.milanomonuments.com, the practice of leaving flowers on graves began thousands of years ago when the ancient Greeks honored fallen warriors because it was believed that if the flowers took root in the ground and grew from the grave, it was a sign that the dead had found peace.
So grave decorating is nothing new, but what’s interesting is that our current decorating day is rooted in Appalachian traditions that likely date back to pre-Civil War times. Wikipedia and www.digitalheritage.org (linking Appalachian culture with world traditions) report that Decorating Day can be religious, a homecoming, a reconnection of the past of lost loved ones to living family members, a celebration of life and death here in Appalachia. The flowers on the grave symbolize the celebration. How beautiful that it is part of our heritage!
I remember being a kid with my maternal grandmother Mary Bowman decorating graves. She taught me the importance of honoring these people and the history that goes with it. It is undoubtedly a tradition which was transmitted to him. Now his grave is the one I lovingly decorate.
Sometimes I walk through cemeteries and recognize people’s names and remember others. I’m thinking. What was it like living at that time? Why did some die so young and if only they were alive today, could modern medicine have saved them? What difference could this life have made for future generations? And, finally, what matters most is the dash between the date of birth and the date of death on the tombstone, because it represents the whole life of a person “And now only those who loved them , know what this little line is worth” (The Dash Poem by Linda Ellis).