Memories of Decoration Day
My ancestors lie on a wind-swept hill just south of Billings in north central Oklahoma. My parents, one set of grandparents, three sets of great grandparents, and numerous aunts, uncles, and cousins of varying degrees slumber there awaiting the final trumpet sound. This is hallowed ground to me, as you might imagine.
This time of year I think about that cemetery a great deal. Monday is Memorial Day, or as it was called when I was growing up, Decoration Day. The annual trek from Edmond to Billings on Memorial Day was a tradition in my family. My mother would get my brother and me up early to get there in time to help Grandma cut the flowers from her garden and place them in coffee cans filled with water. I vividly remember the smell of the lilacs and the dust on the road out to the cemetery. My grandmother already had a husband, a son, and parents buried there, and once we arrived, she and my mother carefully arranged the cans of flowers on the graves. Then Mother would take us around the cemetery showing us the graves of various family members, being very careful not to step on any of them. Perhaps it sounds a bit morbid, but it truly wasn’t.
If other family members weren’t already there, they would arrive soon. My grandmother was one of twelve, and the aunts, uncles, and cousins stood around in the cemetery chatting. They would be gathering later at Aunt Gladys’ or Aunt Lizzie’s for a family dinner, but the talk was always non-stop.
At some point (my memory is not clear on the exact hour), they would join the rest of the community who had gathered at the cemetery in observing a ceremony honoring the deceased veterans buried there. Back then, it was mostly veterans of World War I; my great uncle Wayne wouldn’t join their number for many more years, but he is there now. There were a few veterans of World War II who had died in the fighting; now there are many more, including my dad, my Uncle Holly, my mother’s cousin J.C., and others. The closing of the ceremony was always marked with the playing of taps and a 21-gun salute.
As a child, the noise of the guns frightened me. I didn’t understand much of what I was experiencing. It was only much later as I grew up and gained an appreciation for what the ceremony was about that it took on new meaning in my mind. This whole event was a way for the living to honor those who had been a part of their lives and were no more. Many of the dead in that cemetery were not veterans of wars, but were pioneers who had braved the elements to break the sod and establish homes and communities in a somewhat less than inviting landscape. They deserved to be honored and remembered for what they had done, and decorating the graves was how the community chose to do that. Moreover, this observance provided opportunities for the young to make connections with those of the past whom they would never know but who had impacted their lives in powerful ways. I know that the way the Billings community came together in this effort made a lasting impression on me.
So this Memorial Day, I will be in a cemetery, in part to honor the memory of those earlier Memorial/Decoration Days. As we have for the past two years, my DAR sisters and I will lay a wreath at the flagpole in the Veteran’s Section. We will say a prayer and sing the National Anthem. I wish there could be someone to play taps and offer a 21-gun salute.
And so my thoughts come to this: Maybe it’s time to become more mindful of our cemeteries and those who rest there, to restore them to their rightful place in our communal thinking. Maybe it’s time once again to pay homage for what the inhabitants of these cemeteries accomplished in their lifetimes, whether on the field of battle or simply the field of living, to express gratitude for the benefits that we enjoy now without a second thought. My wish for you this Memorial Day is that you spend some time in a cemetery.