An Appreciation by Jeanne
While listening to NPR yesterday, I heard a serviceman interviewed about Memorial Day, a day set aside to remember those who had died in service. He spoke of the day as a time for reflection for veterans and explained why it isn't a celebration. You can hear the piece or read the transcript here.
I recall when Memorial Day was May 30, but in 1968 Congress made it one of the "Monday holidays," moving it to the last Monday in May. It was originally a day to remember those who had died in military service, and many date the observance to the years following the Civil War. It was a state holiday, not a federal one, until 1967.
For years I assumed that everyone went to the family graveyard over Memorial Day weekend to decorate the graves of family and friends. Many families in the area would gather en masse to clean the cemetery and have dinner on the ground. Family members who lived out of the area were at least expected to send flowers; families who graves left unadorned after the holiday were the subject of gossip for neglecting family. After all, Memorial Day was the modern name; earlier it was called Decoration Day, referring to the flowers and tributes left graveside. I remember my mother telling me that she and her siblings would spend hours making flowers from crepe paper.
Which brings me to the book Decoration Day in the Mountains by Alan Jabbour and Karen Singer Jabbour which discusses this very topic. Although the particular area they surveyed was in North Carolina, many of the things they discuss are customs similar to the ones I knew. They include Church Homecomings, grave inscriptions and decorations, This book describes the history and culture surrounding the day, including photographs and interviews. It's a fascinating look at a way of life which is fast disappearing along with the family graveyards. It's a lovely piece of nostalgia for those who remember, and a wonderful introduction to those who don't.
Family graveyards still exist, but as families move away from the traditional "homeplace" and descendants scatter more and more people are opting for perpetual care cemeteries. These cemeteries are owned by companies which will see to it that the graves are properly maintained, relieving family members of the burden. Along with this trend, I've been seeing fewer grave decorations when I make the trek back to my home county these past few years. More and more people in the area see Memorial Day more as the start to summer than a day to remember the past.
Additional note: many years ago, a co-worker shared an old document from a school district-- Michigan, I believe, but at any rate it was from one of the regions on the "Hillbilly Highway," where mountaineers traveled to find work. One of the notes was that teachers were to expect pupil absences around the time of Memorial Day, because it was some sort of reunion time for those from the Appalachian region. My reaction was surprise that Memorial Day apparently was NOT so observed in the North.