I did not grow up with the tradition of visiting cemeteries and decorating graves, even though some of my close relatives did follow this practice. I have been confused by the meaning and purpose of this "holiday". Is it to visit the graves of deceased family members? Is it to honor the lives given by military personnel in service to our country?
Now I understand, the answer is "yes" to both.
I just read a short article in the Sunday newspaper supplement called "War and Remembrance", quoting Harvard president and historian Drew Gilpin Faust, which explains the purpose of Decoration Day, as it was first called when it was established nationally in 1868. It grew out of the civil war, when 750,000 people died. This is more than all other American wars combined.
Quoting from the article: " You have to remember that probably half of the Civil War dead were never identified because there were no dog tags or official next-of-kin notifications. It was a shared loss in the sense that so many dead belonged to everyone because they weren't identified as belonging to any single one. These were also not the kinds of deaths that society believed were appropriate at the time. They were gruesome and happened far from home. Death without dignity imperiled the meaning of the life that proceeded it, so a day for memorial was meant to restore the dignity of those lives, underscore the contributions that had been made, and in some way ratify how important the courage and sacrifice had been. It was an important part of the nation's mourning."
Because many Civil War soldiers were buried in small family plots, it also became a day to visit the family graves, tidy them up, decorate them, and honor the ancestors.
The name Decoration Day gradually became commonly referred to and Memorial Day, and was officially changed in 1968. It is primarily a day to honor service men and women who have died in defense of our country, but also including all who have served.
Tom has an ancestor, a great grandfather, who was a Civil War soldier and is buried not far from us, in Olympia. He died at the age of 49 from consumption, most likely a lung problem begun during his time of service. Tom has other family members buried there too.
I'm thinking maybe I want to become a participant in this Memorial Day tradition after all. I think maybe we'll make that drive to Olympia tomorrow.
Do you decorate graves?