First, let us start with the history of Memorial Day:
Per Wikipedia: Memorial Day is a United States Federal holiday which occurs every year on the final Monday of May. Memorial Day is a day of remembering the men and women who died while serving in the United States Armed Forces. Formerly known as Decoration Day (and often called this when I was a child), it originated after the American Civil War to commemorate both the Union and Confederate soldiers who died in the Civil War.
By the 20th century, Memorial Day had been extended to honor all Americans who have died while in the military service. It typically marks the start of the summer vacation season, while Labor Day marks its end.
Many people visit cemeteries and memorials, particularly to honor those who have died in military service. Many volunteers place an American flag on each grave in national cemeteries. One year, when Bob and I were in Santa Barbara on Memorial Day, we saw thousands of little flags planted on the beach.
Memorial Day is not to be confused with Veterans Day. Memorial Day is a day of remembering the men and women who died while serving, while Veterans Day celebrates the service of all U.S. military veterans, living or dead.
The practice of decorating soldiers’ graves with flowers is an ancient custom. Soldiers’ graves were decorated in the U.S. before and during the American Civil War. A claim was made in 1906 that the first Civil War soldier’s grave ever decorated was in Warrenton, Virginia on June 3, 1861, implying the first Memorial Day occurred there. There is authentic documentation that women in Savannah, Georgia decorated soldiers’ graves in 1862. In 1863, the cemetery dedication at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania was a ceremony of commemoration at the graves of dead soldiers. Local historians in Boalsburg, PA, claim that ladies there decorated soldiers’ graves on July 4, 1864. As a result, Boalsburg promotes itself as the birthplace of Memorial Day.
Following President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865, there were a variety of events of commemoration. The first well-known observance of a Memorial Day-type observance after the Civil War was in Charleston, South Carolina on May 1, 1865.
The sheer number of soldiers of both sides who died in the Civil War, more than 600,000, meant that burial and memorialization took on new cultural significance. Under the leadership of women during the war, an increasingly formal practice of decorating graves had taken shape. In 1865, the federal government began creating national military cemeteries for the Union war dead.
Memorial events were held in 183 cemeteries in 27 states in 1868, and 336 in 1869. The northern states quickly adopted the holiday. Michigan made “Decoration Day” an official state holiday in 1871 and by 1890, every northern state had followed suit. The ceremonies were sponsored by the Women’s Relief Corps, the women’s auxiliary of the GAR, which had 100,000 members. By 1870, the remains of nearly 300,000 Union dead had been reinterred in 73 national cemeteries, located near major battlefields and thus mainly in the South. The most famous are Gettysburg National Cemetery in Pennsylvania and Arlington National Cemetery, near Washington.
People of all religious beliefs joined together, and the point was often made that the German and Irish soldiers had become true Americans in the “baptism of blood” on the battlefield. By the end of the 1870s, much of the war time rancor was gone, and the speeches usually praised the brave soldiers both the Blue and Gray. By the 1950s, the theme was American exceptionalism and duty to uphold freedom in the world.
Ironton, Ohio, lays claim to the nation’s oldest continuously running Memorial Day parade. Its first parade was held May 5, 1868, and the town has held it every year since. However, the Memorial Day parade in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, predates Ironton’s by one year. **
The ceremonies and Memorial Day address at Gettysburg National Park became nationally well known, starting in 1868. In July 1913, veterans of the United States and Confederate armies gathered in Gettysburg to commemorate the fifty-year anniversary of the Civil War’s bloodiest and most famous battle.
Speaking of parades, when I was a little girl, we walked to St Bonaventure Church in South Fairmount, wearing white clothes and carrying little flags and it was there that the Memorial Day Parade began. Students of St. Leo’s who played musical instruments lined up to march in the parade. When the parade began, we walked from St Bonnie’s – down Queen City Avenue until it ended at Beekman Street – over Beekman until we came to Baltimore Street, and then up Baltimore until we passed St Leo’s and came to the Baltimore Pike Cemetery, which happened to be next door to my grandmother’s house. At the end of the parade, children were given a popsicle and dignitaries of Cincinnati made speeches.
For weeks prior to Memorial Day, my mother and aunts made artificial flowers out of tissue paper and crepe paper. The dining room table would be covered with artificial flowers for weeks. They made bouquets of the artificial flowers to sell along with live flowers from my grandmother’s garden. We children stood on the corner at the entrance to the cemetery, crying out “Flowers for Sale!! Fifty Cents! (or maybe twenty five cents by the end of the day). A lot of flowers were sold this way and Grandma would give each child a quarter for our participation in this family fundraiser.
I can’t even imagine, today, how long of a walk that was for young children. I think it had to be about five miles long. I remember how my legs ached at the end of the day. I don’t think any of us, at such a young age, understood the significance of the parade or our marching. But we’d do almost anything for a free popsicle.
Occasionally, my cousin, Johnny, or my brothers Biff and Bill, and I would go up to the cemetery next door to my grandmother’s. The lower part of the cemetery was all grassy grounds—the graves were far above at the top of the cemetery. I would search for my playmate’s grave—Lonna May Wright was a playmate in kindergarten and first grade—who was killed by a truck while she was roller skating in the street. Her grave had an angel headstone which made it easier to find. I don’t remember who told me that Lonna May had been killed—I think it might have been my aunt Dolly. Family members surely knew that she was my playmate. Someone probably pointed out the dangers of skating in the street – no one would have overlooked the opportunity to implant a life lesson. I searched until I found Lonna May in my first communion group photograph. When I think of memorial day, I am irrevocably reminded of Lonna May. It might not have been the intention of the founders of Memorial Day – but I think it became a reminder to all of us, everywhere, of those we have lost in life. And so, this year, even though I am far from the cemetery on Baltimore Street, I will be thinking of Lonna May, a cute little girl who died far too young.
If I were in town and visited old St Joseph cemetery – I could take flowers to the graves of family members and uncles who served in world war II.
Memories are made of this. We remember for many different reasons.
–Sandra Lee Smith