Written by Carol Beaver, Church Advocate, Legacy Coalition
As a child, I looked forward to Decoration Day each year. Mom would put together a picnic lunch while my dad gathered flowers from his garden beds. The collected mason jars, set aside through the year, would become vases for multiple bouquets. I was the errand girl and smeller of flowers.
The lunch, flowers, and make-shift vases went into the car trunk, making it smell like a spring bouquet. We headed down the highway, traveling for over an hour to visit the little church cemetery where many names on the stones came from my mother’s family.
Then we arrived at the cemetery, hoping the old-fashioned pump was working so we could fill the jars and the bouquets would last. I carried the flowers, Dad filled the jars with water, and Mom cleared away debris and overgrowth around the gravestones.
Mom shared memories or information about each relative. Sometimes the tales were humorous, especially when she recounted various sibling antics. Other stories told of a mother’s sadness in losing an infant or a husband left bereft when his wife passed.
Mom’s stories were about friends and family she had known, and the details were personal to her. However, I came to learn that it was about much more as well.
Over the years, I noticed graves with flags and metal stars, beginning to realize the military aspect of this holiday. The whole story of Decoration Day started as the Civil War was ending.
Widows and other women in the South carried flowers to decorate the graves of their brave soldiers. The decorating continued and gradually spread to the North as families wanted to honor their soldiers.
To deal with the large number of burials needed as the Civil War ended, the United States established National Cemeteries, including Arlington, home of Robert E. Lee. Burials began before the legislation for its use as a cemetery passed into law, but subsequent actions made it impossible for the Lee family to return.
In 1866, soldiers on both sides of the Civil War encouraged communities and survivors to show proper respect to those who died in The Civil War. Gradually communities all across the nation began to honor their fallen soldiers in the Spring. They chose dates coinciding with great victories or birthdays of famous generals, so there was no uniformity of date among the states.
In 1868, John Hogan, the leader of a group of Northern Civil War veterans, called for a national day of remembrance on the 30th of May.
It would be a day to strew flowers or decorate the grave of comrades who died in defense of their country; whose bodies lay scattered all over the country. The date was acceptable because it was not the date of any particular battle or general’s birthday.
Decoration Day celebrations continued annually but with no standard national date until World War I. Following the end of the war, the realization hit that all the bickering about dates for honoring the dead was pointless.
After so many Americans from the north, south, east, and west fought and died together, May 30 became the official national Decoration Day to honor all those who gave their lives for their country. Some states continue other dates, but the nation as a whole honors those who fought and died.
Two other holidays recognize our military as well. Veteran’s Day in November honors those who survived and recognizes their great sacrifice. Armed Forces Day celebrates those currently serving.
In 1967, Decoration Day officially became Memorial Day to honor and remember all Americans who died in any war. Then, in 1968, Congress established the Uniform Holiday Act making the last Monday of May – one of the designated three-day weekend holidays, thereby having the date change each year.
Growing up with Decoration Day as a day of honoring family members and the military, the name change and date manipulation bothered me. It felt like my world had shifted a bit, but I soon realized the significance of the flags and stars.
I understood that Memorial Day had particular relevance because two half-brothers I had not known are honored on that day. One lies on the bottom of the English Channel and has a stone in an English cemetery. The other grave rests in Fort Snelling National Cemetery in Minneapolis.
I have visited this gravesite and grieved for my dad, who lost two sons in WWII. I know why his first words after I was born were, “Thank God, it’s a girl.”
Many of my grandparent friends have family stories like this. There are still a few WWII veterans left. Some were so reluctant to share stories because of the horrors of war.
Since the Great War, this county has continued to send men and women into conflicts for many reasons, some deemed appropriate, and some seen as poor decisions. American men and women went to fight, some not returning, and some returning with scars of body, mind, and spirit.
Many of them are grandparents now. Today, even in the middle of unprecedented times, let’s take time to reflect on those who have made the supreme sacrifice. Tell the stories of those who fought for America. Encourage those who sorrow. Pray for those whose wounds have never healed. Tell the stories, so your children and grandchildren know their heritage.
Use this holiday to celebrate and honor the freedoms we have and to acknowledge our national struggles. As Christians, our first allegiance is to God; as Americans, we repeat our Pledge of Allegiance to our flag and country. These are part of the legacy we pass on.