One May when I was young, I remember my Aunt Lillian referring to Decoration Day. I was intrigued; I liked decorations because decorations meant a party. What could be going on, I wondered. In those pre-Internet days, I went to an encyclopedia to find out about Decoration Day. I soon learned that it had something to do with Memorial Day.
The first national celebration of what we know as Memorial Day occurred on May 30, 1868. It was called Decoration Day and had its roots in the Civil War. “Decoration” referred to decorating the graves of Civil War soldiers with flowers. Some cemetery decoration practices pre-date the Civil War, but many believe Decoration Day/Memorial Day owes its genesis to the practice of women placing flowers on the graves of soldiers during the Civil War. According to Wikipedia, “[t]he name ‘Memorial Day,’ which was first attested in 1882, gradually became more common than ‘Decoration Day’ after World War II but was not declared the official name by federal law until 1967.” Even though the day has its roots in the Civil War, over the years Memorial Day has become an opportunity to remember those who died in other wars in which the United States was engaged. Others have expanded the day to include remembering the lives of loved ones, not just those who died in service to their country.
Alison Boor shares her family’s story of remembering loved ones on Memorial Day.
For as long as I can remember, my mother and her sister made a pilgrimage to the family cemeteries at Christmas and Memorial Day. Christmas meant my artist aunt making red bows from a big spool of ribbon, combining them with sprays of greens from her backyard. Memorial Day was usually big bunches of peonies from my parent’s yard, hauled in buckets to be placed in vases at Pleasant View and coffee cans at Zion Blue Mountain, Strausstown. (Pennsylvania). The Strausstown cemetery was filled with our relatives going back to the 1700s, but the family rule was to put flowers on the graves of the people my mother and aunt knew, loved, and remembered. So, Mammy and Pappy Spengler got flowers even though only my aunt remembered them, and that was just barely. My mom and aunt arranged the decorations and then paused for a moment – usually my mom had a few words to say to those dearest to her.
In time, my aunt died, and my mother and dad made the pilgrimage alone, adding my aunt’s grave to the list. My dad’s parents had always been included in this list of family – so they added my father’s brother and sister-in-law.
Then my dad died, and now my husband and I go. We’ve added a third cemetery where my husband’s mother is buried. Sometimes our sons go with us. And sometimes my mother, who at 96 has good days and not-so-good days – will go if she feels up to the trip.
Why do we do it? At Strausstown, those we serve are frequently the only graves still remembered by anyone in that section of the cemetery. The rest sit neglected – or maybe at peace, depending on how you look at it. And we’re still giving flowers to Mammy and Pappy Spengler because now it’s part of the tradition. Will I continue to remember the people of Mom’s memory when she is gone, or will I just put flowers out for the people I knew?
I doubt my sons will continue when I am gone. But I think I will continue to come back as long as I’m able. It does me good to remember these good people, most of whom lived fairly simple lives, but lives still filled with the joys and heartaches that we all have. It does me good to remember them.
Linda Post Bushkofsky and Alison Berger Boor were college roommates at Susquehanna University (Selinsgrove, Pa.), an ELCA college.
Photo by Justin Casey on unsplash.com. Used with permission.
I was born on May 30, Decoration Day. Marched with the band as a majorette through junior hifh and high school. We marched on “Decoration Day to the local cemeteries, one Catholic, Small) and the big village one.
I still do that. Hi to Allison & Linda.
I decorate 6 relatives a think it is too bad if we are last generation to do it as it seems younger ones. don’t seem that interested in it