Sunday, May 27, 2018

Decoration Day

The first Decoration Day came about in the U.S. after the Civil War.  With the deaths of some 600,000 soldiers, 600,000 new graves scarring the countryside, families needed an official moment to honor the dead, to grieve in concert, to consecrate the sacrifice. When I was growing up there were no war dead in our family -- lucky us -- so on Decoration Day it was our duty to accompany my grandma and flowers to the cemetery to decorate all the family graves.  

The flowers came from Gram's yard.  Real flowers.  Homegrown flowers in Mason jars.  (Artificial flowers would have sacriligious to her, an abomination.) We brought peonies and lilac boughs that filled the car with the heady perfume of spring and resurrected  life. 

Grandpa drove, parked the car, and waited.  Gram, Mom and my aunt, my sister and I, would visit each grave, the resting place of Gram's brothers, her mother, her father, her first husband.  Sometimes things would have changed a bit and there were false starts and discussions of missing landmarks, but eventually each grave would be found.  

To visit meant to pull weeds, brush off the flat stone with tender, loving fingers, find a water spigot, and arrange the flowers in a metal vase stuck in the ground by the grave. Bouquets delivered, our little group of the living would hunt for the graves of more distant family, friends, and neighbors.

The saddest and most frightening was the grave of my cousin, Buddy, who died as a toddler and whose death my great aunt never seemed to come to terms with.  The marker, half-buried in the grass, was a stone lamb.  I was anxious to move on: if Buddy could die and be in a box under the ground, what was different about me?  

At each grave, we paused to remark on whether or not so-and-so's family had brought flowers yet and how lovely they were.  Gram would remind us who each person was in the family lore and my mom or aunt would sometimes tell a story, proffer a little memory for us to keep.  It was a small repertoire of stories and after a few years' repetition, they were firmly a part of us, my sister and me, too.  

I haven't returned to the cemetery to leave flowers since I left home nearly 50 years ago, except on the day my grandma was buried there.  We are all scattered now, across states and countries.  Not a single one lives near, so there is no one to brush the dust from the graves, no flowers to show that the person under the stone is loved and remembered. 

I like to think their spirits have followed me here, that I can make the offering of loving memory with a bouquet of hydrangeas and roses on the mantel. I carry them in my heart no matter where I am, as long as I have this memory of tending their graves with Gram on Decoration Day.


  1. No matter where you go she is with matter where any loved one goes, they are always with you.
    Fitting you should write about graves because I'm travelling to another city in the morning to put flowers on my parents grave - and what a lovely gesture to do what you did to graves way back..

  2. What a touching post. So nice to clean the graves with your grandparents. Sweet memories....

  3. That is a wonderful tribute to your grandmother and the memories you have with her on this day.
    Last week we visited with Dan's mother and took her to two cemeteries. The first was one we found last summer where her grandparents were buried. She had not been there in a very long time. The other she had been to more recently with Dan's brother. It's where her parents, and maternal grandmother and some aunts and uncles are buried. Her second husband is buried there too and her name is on that stone but she has no plans for her ashes to go into the ground next to him!

  4. What wonderful memories you have, you may have a cousin who visits them now, you never know. I just recently found the graves of my Great Great Grandparents...I have not had time to get there yet:(

    1. Wow, that's exciting! I hope the stones are still readable. I'm only the second generation in the US on my mom's side and no first cousins, so this is as far back as the US graves go. Hope you get to check those out soon.

  5. Woodbury Methodist Church was the graveyard where our extended family met for these rites. The a very few houses and farms nearby. Our most recent visit found and new and the old church still nearby.
    And 70thousand people surrounding in suburbia....

  6. Dear Cynthia, as I read your posting it brought back to me just what our family did--Mom, Dad, my brother, and me--during the 1940s and early 1950s. I left home in 1958 to enter the convent and by the time I returned back to Missouri nearly 60 years later--Mom and Dad were dead and buried in a cemetery in Kansas City. I do not go there each year. I'm not sure why because a friend does go. But as I read your posting, I remembered those days so long ago and found myself nostalgic for my youth and my parents. Thank you. Peace.

  7. Oh Cynthia, this is beautifully written. Brings back memories of walking with mama through the cemetery searching for graves and putting flowers on the old graves. Now it's just my sister and me left to visit mama's and daddy's grave. Sad, isn't it.


  8. What a lovely memory and a beautiful tradition. We have lost much by giving up the extended family centred in place. We have gained freedom and adventure. I left my family of origin to move across an ocean and a continent without a second thought in my twenties, so no right to wax nostalgic about village culture. Anyway, thanks for the sweet read