Flowers for the fallen

~a column by Colleen O’Brien

A year ago on Memorial Day a friend and I picnicked in a large, town cemetery in southwest Florida. A few graves held plastic flowers which could have been there all year or placed the day before. The two of us dropped orange hibiscus blooms on family graves she knew; we were the only people in the cemetery.

Because I’ve not been to many Florida cemeteries on Memorial Day, some may have more action than Indian Mound Cemetery in Charlotte County, but I do know that the Midwest is devoted to its cemeteries on Memorial Day weekend.

This year, on a sentimental journey to my hometown of Jefferson, I arrived in time to place flowers on the graves of relatives from four generations ago, plus on my husband’s gravesite and his relatives.

It is a common ritual in the Midwest, this day of decorating tombstones with flowers and sending silent thoughts heavenward for people known personally and people who died before we were born. Sometimes there is the cleaning up of gravestones –pulling weeds and trimming peony bushes; this year it was just placing deep red geraniums in front of each grave and talking with my sister about our interred in three towns that take care of our dead. Flowers real and plastic were on nearly every grave in each cemetery, these well-maintained parks busy with families decorating graves, watering flowers, wandering here and there reading tombstones along gravel trails lined with American flags.

The most well-known history of the day of memory was originally called Decoration Day. It was declared thus in 1868 by the Grand Army of the Republic, a fraternal organization of Civil War Union veterans, as a day to decorate the graves of the fallen soldiers of their war. However, according to the History Channel, it was on May 1, 1865, that the first memorial was held. In Charleston, South Carolina, thousands of newly freed slaves and soldiers of the Union Colored Troops marched in honor of the unnamed fallen Union soldiers who fought for their freedom. Alongside the marching troops were African-American women and children carrying flowers and crosses and singing hymns in memoriam. In 1971, an act of Congress officially named the day a national holiday on the last Monday of May and changed the name to Memorial Day to encompass all the wars of American soldiers. Way too many by then, but nonetheless, it is the day set aside to honor the now approximately 1.1 million who have died serving in the military since the beginning of this country two and a half centuries ago.

But my sis and I a couple of days ago, like many folks, were decorating all the graves of family, some of them warriors, most of them not. We put flowers on the grave of an uncle we never knew because he died at the age of 12 nearly a century ago. We put flowers on the graves of great grandparents we never met and a great uncle whom my sister was named after. We put flowers on our mom’s grave and talked about our sister buried in Texas whose grave we would not decorate, this year anyway.

The decorating of graves is something we did with our parents and grandparents as youngsters. That we still get to honor our own dead in this act of bringing them flowers is so satisfying – it has something to do with nostalgia as we age, but more so with carrying on traditions of ancestors, doing one’s duty, paying attention, maintaining a link to the past as long as we can, perhaps in hopes that when our turn comes, we too shall be remembered with stories and bedecked with flowers on a sunny day in May.

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