Grandma often called it by the older name, “Decoration Day.” Each spring, as May approached, Grandma would start making phone calls to distant friends and relatives, making sure that flowers would be placed on the graves of relatives in that area. She would also make plans for the graves of relatives that were within a reasonable drive of her home. During the days in the week before Memorial Day she would visit each of those graves and place flowers. If the particular relative in question had also been a war veteran, she would place a small U.S. flag along with the flowers.
The pastors in the Southern Baptist churches we attended might give a sermon on the last Sunday in May about the importance of turning grief into rejoicing because someone has been “taken home to be with the Lord.” There would be some mention of people who died in military service (often as part of one of the prayers, asking god to comfort the families of the fallen soldiers, airman, marines, and sailors), but it was seldom the primary focus of the sermon.
For most of my childhood, I understood that Memorial Day was a time for families to visit the graves of loved ones. It was about remembering anyone who had died. The fact that many people used the day to specifically remember and honor those who had died in battle seemed to be a subset of the larger goal of celebrating the lives of all your loved ones who had died.
Most of my grade school career occurred before the passage of the federal Uniform Monday Holiday Act, so Memorial Day landed on whatever day of the week May 30 was, and I don’t think we were usually let out of school to observe it. When the Monday Holiday Act went into effect, I remember a lot of grumbling from various adults in my life. One particular rant stood out: an older man at the church potluck in May started complaining about “Yankees taking a good, pro-family holiday and turning it into a pro-federalist celebration of war!” He was shushed by his wife before he got too far along.
I didn’t meet my first Radical Memorialist until High School. Someone made a comment about the big barbecue their parents were planning for the weekend, and another of my classmates went ballistic. Memorial Day was not supposed to be about parties and celebrations! It was a serious day to remember people “who gave the ultimate sacrifice to keep this country free!” Anyone who didn’t do that was ignorant and shallow at best, selfish and unpatriotic at worst.
I genuinely was stunned. This being in the Stone Age (before the advent of the internet), I had to look up Memorial Day in an Encyclopedia. And that’s when I first learned how the original Memorial Day had been observed in 1866 intended to honor “those fallen in battle defending their nation during the recent rebellion.” A decidedly northern perspective.
Before that time, many southern states had a tradition of a Decoration Sunday that sometimes happened in April, in other places in May, where the aim had been to put flowers on the graves of family members. Families would frequently have a picnic lunch in the graveyard or cemetery, telling stories and celebrating the lives of their dearly departed. These often turned into family reunions, because family members living far away would try to get home for Decoration Sunday.
Which is why for many years a few southern states didn’t recognize a state holiday of Memorial Day. Several of those that did recognize Memorial Day still also had a separate Confederate Memorial Day or Confederate Decoration Day, because even today in those places Memorial Day is seen by many as “pro-Union.”
Of course, the historical reality is more complicated than that original encyclopedia article I read. While the Civil War was still raging, groups of people, mostly women, in both the north and the south organized days to decorate graves of soldiers from both sides. There was a recognition of the common humanity of all the soldiers. Some people coordinated it with the existing Decoration Days, others did not.
When I saw certain people going off on rants this weekend, angry that there are people who don’t spend the entire three day weekend on the sober, solemn, and somber business of mourning fallen veterans, I felt conflicting emotions. Of course we should be grateful to the memories of the men and women who have died in battle, fighting in our name in various wars and conflicts around the world. Of course we should comfort grieving widows and widowers. We, as a nation, should take care of children bereft of a parent because of a war fought in our name. Of course we should do all of those things.
But being a jerk to people who don’t choose to do it precisely the same way and at precisely the same time as you? That isn’t something I can support.
Memorial Day in my family was always a day to honor the memories of people such as my great-grandparents: people I knew and loved and who are no longer with us. It was a time to call my maternal grandmother to hear about everyone she had contacted while arranging the flowers, to get news from distant relatives (many of whom I barely remembered). For the last several years I haven’t been able to do that part. Grandma died on the Friday before Memorial Day, 2007. She was putting flowers on the grave of one of my great-aunts. My step-grandfather was getting ready to take a picture, when Grandma looked up, said she didn’t feel good, and then she fell over, suffering a massive aneurism.
We realized the next Memorial Day that none of us knew how to contact everyone that Grandma always got hold of to make sure flowers were placed on the graves of my great-grandparents, or Great-great-Aunt Pearl, or several others of the more distant relatives. My aunt located a few. One of my cousins tracked down a few others. and all of us spend some time on this weekend thinking about Grandma, and all the ways she kept everyone connected.
I’ve spent other time this weekend thus far thinking of many people I have had the privilege of knowing and loving who are no longer with us. My two grandfathers and eight great-uncles who served in WWII among them. Rather than lament their loss, I think about the good things they did, and about the fun times we had together. Memorializing someone should be about celebrating their life. Not just weeping.
And it certainly shouldn’t be about scolding people who have the temerity to wish you a happy holiday weekend.