70 years ago when I was young we celebrated “Decoration Day.”
In those days the term Decoration Day was often used instead of the current term: Memorial Day. This older term has gone out of fashion now. It is a pity as there was a sense of ritual in decorating the graves. Then, remembering the family’s dead was of first importance, not the many holiday sales or recreational events that have happened recently at the end of May. Then, each year we carefully picked lilacs, iris, and poppies and put them into pails of water–one didn’t buy flowers from a store. We would pack a lunch and then pick up my mother’s parents. Many of the family graves were located in Oneida County where my grandmother’s family lived. A trip from my home near Oswego took all day then.
Each May we carried on a tradition of decorating graves that had been done in America for nearly 90 years. We would leave early and get there about noon. After our brief lunch we would go to the cemetery and find the family graves–this was not easy as this was an old cemetery. Although my grandparents had done this more than once, there was always a sense of uncertainty where the graves were exactly. To me, as a child, it became an adventure to find them. Some graves were decorated with small American flags– the old 48-star kind of long ago. Some had a small metal marker with the letters G.A.R. on it; as a child had I no idea what this meant. The G.A.R. was the Grand Army of the Republic a fraternal order of Union Civil War veterans. Today it is common to see markers on graves for fraternal groups and first responders, but the G.A.R was among the first, so that the graves of those who saved the Union could be easily identified and decorated with flowers.
Why did Americans begin this tradition? Before the Civil War, this was not a common practice. According to Rick Burns, in his documentary “Death and the Civil War,” people then had what he has characterized as a “good death.” In a predominantly Christian nation they died at home surrounded by family. Death was not to be feared, but the natural order of things. One could expect to rejoin loved ones in the afterlife. A good death then involved family who would gather for the sendoff. Perhaps they were there to give comfort as the member passed, but most certainly to hear the last words of the loved one. And that was the essence of a good death — not to die alone.
The Civil War changed this. Men died on battlefields separated from family. It was not uncommon to find a fatally injured soldier, on the battlefield, with a tintype of his wife and children placed nearby to give him a “good death.” As this long brutal war continued, it is now estimated, nearly 750,000 Americans died on both sides. In both the North and the South families tried to retrieve their lost ones for a proper burial. Sometimes it was possible to return them home; other times they were already interred in the new national and confederate cemeteries and could not be moved. Many were lost with no records of where they fell. As the war dragged on, it became the practice then to visit the battlefield graves to look for bodies or see them in the new national cemeteries. As we know Waterloo, New York is credited with the first public Memorial Day observances in 1865. Americans went to the cemetery to honor the lost heroes on both sides. They wanted to give them the semblance of a good death.
Our current pandemic situation has complicated the passing of many this year. Like the men and women throughout our history who died in battle, family members now are separated from loved ones who are very ill. Those who normally would have been gathered at a hospice or hospital bed cannot be there. It falls on others to give those passing solace and comfort – not their families.
As we pause this Memorial Day, let us thank the care givers, first responders, and others who are there.
American History in Real LifeMovies in the past have often shown characters that were touched by historical events. Yet sometimes, the truth is often more fantastic than anything Hollywood can devise. These stories of real people show how the events of the past touched their lives. Some times the stories are dramatic, sometimes simple, but all in all they weave a tapesty of the richness of the American experience.
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© John Norvell
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