Greetings from Seattle

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Decoration Day/Memorial Day

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?


  1. No, but my mom and cousins who live so much closer to the cemetery where our family is buried, do.

  2. No, I don't. But spending some time poring over old pictures of my loved ones who are no longer with us is a pastime of this "holiday" that gives me some measure of closure. I still miss my parents, my sons, and those other family members who are gone. It's a treasured moment, thinking about them.

  3. We never grew up with this practice either, but when I married my first husband, his family always went to their hometowns and decorated the family graves. It was a time of family togetherness as we traveled with them and had a picnic lunch and visited other relatives. I always really enjoyed those days. It also was a time of learning more family history and walking through old cemeteries looking at interesting graves.

    My husband and I always go out to decorate his parents' and his sister's grave. We also go to visit my father's gravesite. Now, my daughter is buried there beside him, so I go to visit her grave also. I use the time to also clean up the gravesite and make sure the stone is cleaned and the weeds or leaves are cleared. Today, my husband carefully did that work for me at my daughter's grave. It brings me comfort to keep her place looking cared for.

  4. I generally do but this year won't be making the trip up north but my son and grand daughters hopefully will.

  5. I like the scene in your header. The culture where I lived in the South when I was young had the tradition of visiting graveyards and cleaning them. I didn't associate it with Memorial Day but I think most people today are mindful of the importance of our military. I see a lot of flags in my region because there are many memorial parks honoring the veterans.

  6. I used to decorate the graves of relatives, but never do. No energy, no interest, I suppose!

  7. Oh, my, yes. Memorial Day/Decoration Day was always a trip to Pennsylvania and a tour of cemeteries where family members are buried. I never thought of it as a day for cook-outs and camping at all. We planted flowers at graves and bought poppies from veterans. I still visit my parents' grave and plant something.

  8. As a child in Key West, we always spent the day first attending services for the war dead, then going to the cemetery to clean up our long gone relatives graves. Now we are buried all over the country so that part is over.

  9. I have to go back to my grandparents to even find a grave. Most everyone I ever knew was cremated. Hence, no tradition and the older I get, the more I appreciate traditions.


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