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Inside the Brown Bag By Peg Brown

The Day for Memories

We cherish too, the Poppy red/That grows on fields where valor led, /It seems to signal to the skies/That blood of heroes never dies. —Moina Michael, “In Flanders Fields,” 1915

While Congress in 1971 may have declared that the last Monday in May as a national holiday known as Memorial Day, it will always be Decoration Day to me. Memorial Day marks for many the true beginning of summer (not the June solstice), when, at least in my home town, thoughts turn to taking the shutters off camps, sweeping out mothballs and, finally, untangling your fishing tackle for the first derby. Be assured that Decoration Day, the term that our generation had for this holiday, meant all of those plans and more to my family for decades.

The most important plans however were not for back yard barbeques and family gatherings but centered on visiting and decorating the graves of family members—those lost in war and those just simply lost. During the weeks prior to the holiday, Grandma Cordwell would bring out the containers to hold the flowers for the family graves. We rarely purchased new containers as the baskets and green metal cone shaped planters had been carefully collected from the graves the previous June and tucked away in the cellar or garage for the next tribute offering. Flowers were carefully chosen to include varieties that reflected the colors of the flag, while sturdy enough to survive the fickle spring weather of the North Country for a few weeks. Most often, Grandma chose red geraniums, accented with a few white and dark purple petunias. Family members were buried in several different cemeteries, making for a day of visiting and remembering.

Most of my immediate family are buried in a very small plot of land located just off the main street in Morristown, NY. There is a certain measure of serenity enhanced by a gentle slope that allows its residents a tiny glimpse of the St. Lawrence River, but only during fall and winter months when the leaves have made an additional blanket of warmth over our loved ones. When Grandpa purchased the plot, he installed the family headstone and had the names and birthdates of those who would eventually occupy the space engraved (he was always organized!). I think that when we accompanied our parents to place the flowers, we found this a bit disconcerting. After all, here were Mom and Dad’s names already engraved—just waiting for an end date to be added.

There must have been Memorial Day parades, concerts and fire hall chicken dinner events, but for us those festivities belonged to our small town’s Fourth of July celebrations. I don’t think as children we had any real understanding of the significance of Decoration Day—but it was always a solemn occasion. For my grandparents and parents who had witnessed two world wars, the spirit of the day reflected the intention of the very first observance—honoring the war dead.

Historically, there had actually been a heated debate among many cities and towns over where and when the concept of a Memorial Day originated. Historians agree that the concept originated in the South during or immediately following the Civil War. One account indicates that Southern women, honoring their dead during the Civil War, observed that Northern soldiers, the enemy, were buried nearby and their graves we being ignored. In a display of that notorious Southern hospitality, the story suggests that these women sprinkled a few of their flowers on these otherwise unadorned graves.

By the late 1800s, May 30 was being celebrated in many cities and towns around the United States. Originally intended as a day to honor the thousands who died in the Civil War, its intent was expanded just after World War I to honor all of those who died in all American wars. While, as children, we accompanied our families to place floral tributes on the graves of all of our family members who had died, the stories told to us that day were always centered on those who had given their lives during World War II.

There are some who feel that the meaning of Memorial Day as we now know it has diminished and in some cases faded over the past several decades. Those who are discouraged cite that the change began when Memorial became a three-day holiday and, as proof, point to the decline in the number of graves that are decorated with flowers and flags, the cancelling of parades and lack of understanding of proper flag display etiquette.

There have been efforts to reintroduce the spirit of the day. Several bills have been introduced in Congress to once again celebrate on May 30 and abandon the three-day holiday. As you might expect, those have died in committee. In 2000, however, Congress did pass the “National Moment of Remembrance” resolution that asks all Americans to pause at 3 pm local time and “voluntarily and informally observe in their own way a moment of remembrance and respect, pausing from whatever they are doing for a moment of silence or listing to ‘Taps’.”

I think accomplishing this might be about as possible as keeping silence on Good Friday between noon and 3 pm—another practice long forgotten.

A personal note: 2019 marks the 20th anniversary of my father’s passing, and I lost my mother in November, 2017. I know that Mother would be asking, as she did every year that she resided in Rhode Island—eight hours away from those cemeteries–“Who is going to put the flowers on the graves this year?” Good question. I will have to trust that their great-grandchildren continued the tradition.

Author’s notes:

One account of the debate surrounding the beginning of the holiday cites a hymn that was published in 1867— “Kneel Where Our Loves are Sleeping” — written in dedication “To the Ladies of the South who are Decorating the Graves of the Confederate Dead.”
In 1966 citing a ceremony held on May 5, 1866, honoring veterans who had fought in the Civil War, President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo, NY, the “birthplace” of Memorial Day. How difficult must it have been for a Southern gentleman to sign this bill giving credit to the North for what was clearly more traditionally celebrated in the South during the late 19th century?
Arlington National Cemetery has been home to our heroes and war veterans for over 150 years. More than 400,000 are buried at Arlington. According the Department of Veterans Affairs, over 57 authorized faith emblems are allowed on Arlington cemetery markers, including the pentacle—as in the symbol of witchcraft.