Today all across this great land we call America, we pause to remember those who have fallen. We give thanks for their final sacrifice, for their love of country, and we say prayers for them, for their families, for the country they serve. We fly flags to honor their service, to observe our own dedication to America. But, being the ever optimistic Americans we are, we have turned this day formerly known as Decoration Day into a nation wide party, a celebration of patriotism, family, summer’s promise, and just any old other thing we choose it to be.
Tracking the origins of Memorial Day proves to be a somewhat difficult task. Some attribute it to former African slaves paying tribute to fallen Union soldiers. There is strong evidence that women of the South were decorating graves before the end of the Civil War. On May 30, 1868, flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetary. By 1890 all the northern states were observing the day. The South would not observe the same date until after World War I, when it became more than an observance recognizing those fallen in the Civil War.
So, it took another war to unite Americans in remembrance of those fallen heroes. Stubborn aren’t we? Here in the South, I grew up visiting the cemetary on birthdays, holidays, and whenever my mother felt a need to connect with those gone from her – but never forgotten. Each visit to the cemetary (my mother never let us call it a graveyard) was a fascinating experience to me as a child. Always walk around the plots, never step on one. Wander away as my mother knelt in the grass coaxed lovingly into growth in the red Georgia clay. Look first for relatives, those my mother spoke of, and those strange names I was unfamiliar with. Look for the little stone with the lamb on top – the resting place of my mother’s baby sister, Carole. Look for more lambs and little angels – they were dotted around the older section with alarming frequency, something I noticed even as a child. Take note of all the flowers. It was a fine thing for a family to have many who remembered to honor their dead. I also very vividly remember the little American flags stuck in the ground on days such as Memorial Day and the Fourth of July. Not too long ago, I found a small cemetary with a mass grave of Confederate soldiers who mostly died of an outbreak, possibly flu, during the war. Those little flags had been put in the ground around the few individual markers. I wondered if they minded that 50 star flag, or if they were grateful to be remembered, honored, prayed over.
It was something I lived with as a child, this presence of the dead. I never thought much about it until recently. Here you literally cannot stray far outside your own yard without encountering some reminder of the war fought on this soil, and those fallen. As a child, many of our parents remembered grandparents who fought in the war. It is alive for us, and so has colored how we honor our dead, those who have fallen in battle, and those who in the words of many a fire and brimstone preacher, “The LORD has called home to be with HIM.” Believe me, no disrespect intended, just an indication of a little local flavor.
And so, I find myself wondering. Is this a southern thing? Is it an American thing? Or is it something common to all of us, this need to return to the place we left our loved ones for the final time on this earth? Is it a regional custom, tied deep in the roots we are so tangled in, or a need born with our souls? I think it must be the latter, with a twist of regional observances that may vary from place to place, but sooth the heart of those who wait here, on this side. Perhaps, after all is said and done, it meets our needs more than just paying respect to the dead. We wander there, among those peaceful plots, wondering, imagining, where are they? How is it there? When will my time come? Will I be with them again? Then, that most human of all questions. Who will honor me in my time, when I lay beneath the grass coaxed lovingly into growth in the red Georgia clay?