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How to Celebrate Memorial Day at the Cemetery - An Old-Fashioned Decoration Day
Have You Ever Heard of Decoration Day?
Traipsing around the graves in the cemetery next to the church I grew up in (which had only an outhouse during those years) was a regular Sunday afternoon pastime on Decoration Day in my hometown of Elizabeth, Arkansas. Decoration Day was usually the Sunday of Memorial Weekend, unless Memorial Day fell on a fifth weekend, in which case Decoration Day was held on the fourth Sunday. Why? Because that's the way it was always done, the older folks tell me. Decoration Day, despite when Memorial Day might fall, was always--and still is--held on the fourth Sunday of May. That is just the way it is.
So on that fourth Sunday of May, Decoration Day was a time when relatives, locals, and those not-so-local from our little Arkansas town and beyond would come together to remember loved ones lost. Our town of Elizabeth had no paved roads, no stop signs, and no known population. There was a general store with a couple of gas pumps plus a little post office. Elizabeth was a small town that many in the surrounding towns had never heard of, but that little dirt-road town would have no trouble filling up that cemetery on Decoration Day.
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The gates would open, allowing folks to spill in, with the church crowd coming in a little later. At one end of the cemetery was a pavilion with tables, and this is where we had our lunch. Lunch, you ask? Yes, of course. The ladies from miles around brought various casseroles, fried chicken (yeah, they never forgot that!), chicken and dumplings, meatloaf, pinto beans, green beans, scalloped potatoes, breads, and numerous other dishes. Sometimes the dessert table, brimming with cakes, pies, and cookies, almost outdid the “regular” food in size. Coolers offered soft drinks and lemonade, and many of the locals brought thermoses of coffee. People sat on built-in benches in the pavilion, in the lawn chairs they brought, or else they just stood or milled around.
After a prayer, we would all line up and fill our plates, visiting while we ate. Individuals would find their relatives’ headstones, decorating their graves with plastic flowers. Every year, I would look for those of my Grandma Trudy, and then later Grandma Lillian, plus various aunts and uncles, including greats, and even cousins, many having passed as infants.
Just a few years back, we added my little nephew, who was buried high on a beautiful hill in a new area across from the old cemetery that had filled with graves. Imagine all the families represented there, as my own spans a century. This special Memorial Day ritual didn't focus only on veterans on this day, but on those buried in this particular graveyard.
History of Decoration Day
Growing up, I never knew that Memorial Day was meant to be for deceased veterans only, as our family spent the holiday remembering all our loved ones who had passed on. As far as the history goes, Decoration Day was first called such because it was a time after the Civil War when folks would go to cemeteries to decorate the graves of those who had died in the war. It wasn't until the early 1900s that the day became a national holiday known as Memorial Day, a day when those who died in all wars would be remembered. What Wikipedia describes as a Southern tradition with families gathering near the graves, like a family reunion, to enjoy a potluck together, sounds like the tradition I have taken part in my whole life.
Remembering the Veterans
- Memorial Day: Remembering and Helping
Memorial Day is a time to pay tribute to those who gave so we could live like no other people in history. Raise your flag with thanks, then consider ways to help our military and their families.
Decoration Day represented a special way to celebrate the passing of our relatives and was also a way to reconnect with old friends and extended family—a reunion, of sorts. As the years have gone by, I've been fortunate in that I have often been able to arrange my schedule in order to get back to that place. The tradition still continues, and I feel fortunate every time I'm able to attend.
While the years have produced new generations of visitors, many that I don't know, there is still familiarity with most of the families represented there. I guess I've grown up along with everybody else, as I often get a raised eyebrow and a not-so-sure-but-I-think-I-know inquiry: "Now, aren't you Leon and Shirley's girl?"