Growing up in Indiana, I was always excited about Memorial Day Weekend. I didn’t exactly understand what the holiday celebrated, but I knew that it was finally warm enough for everyone to open their pools and that there would be a family cookout where I could see my cousins and other relatives. And of course, the big race, the Indianapolis 500 would be on TV.
As I grew older, my mother began taking me with her to Rice Cemetery on the Saturday before Memorial Day. We would rake and clean the winter debris off the graves of family members and plant new flowers or leave an artificial arrangement. While we worked, I would stop and look out across the very large cemetery and see people tidying the grave sites of their loved ones. When we finished our task, my mother would stand back and say, “I sure do miss them.”
After I became an adult and more family members had passed on, our annual trek involved visits to two cemeteries in my hometown. My grandmother, my mother’s mother, died in November of 2001. The following Memorial Day Weekend my mother and I went to plant flowers on her grave. When we got there, we found a big chunk of firewood right in front of her headstone. My mother fussed, “Now who would put that on someone’s grave” and she promptly threw it into the closest trash can. Later, at the family cookout, she was complaining to my brother about finding that big piece of firewood on her mother’s grave.
My brother broke into a big smile and said, “I put that there.” My mother was speechless for a moment before she asked him why in the world he would do that. “Well,” he said, “I always told grandma I would make sure she had firewood for her wood burning stove in the winter. I put that firewood on her grave when the weather turned cold. I’m still keeping my promise to her.”
While today we remember all of our loved ones who have died, Decoration Day or Memorial Day was originally created to remember and honor those who died in military service to our country. It was renamed “Memorial Day” and declared a federal holiday in 1967, but its origins and customs go all the way back to the American Civil War.
The Civil War lasted for four years, from 1861 – 1865, and during this time over 600,000 men from both sides were killed in combat. Women, in the north and in the south, began spontaneously decorating the graves of their husbands, fathers, brothers and sons as a way to honor their ultimate sacrifice to our country…and as a way of expressing their own grief.
In 1868, General John A. Logan, Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, declared that “Decoration Day” would be observed every May 30th to commemorate all of the soldiers who died in the Civil War. That first Decoration Day, the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington D. C. were decorated with flowers and wreaths. This year on Memorial Day, over 250,000 small American flags will be placed on veteran’s graves at Arlington National Cemetery.
After World War I, Decoration Day was expanded to honor and decorate the graves of those who have died in all American wars. In 1968, Congress changed Memorial Day from May 30th to the last Monday in May so that people might have a three day holiday weekend.
In the year 2000, Congress passed the National Moment of Remembrance Act. Signed by President Bill Clinton, this established a moment for all Americans to pause wherever they are at 3:00 p.m. on Memorial Day and remember the sacrifices made by the men and women who have died in service to our nation.
So who will you remember this Memorial Day and how will you remember them? Will you take flowers to the cemetery? Will you fly your flag in remembrance of all who died serving our country? Will you make a beloved family member’s favorite recipe? Will you tell your children stories about the family members you miss? Will you watch old family videos of them?
For me, I think I will look at pictures of those I miss so very much. And on Monday at 3:00 I’m going to stop for a moment and say a prayer and be thankful for their lives…especially the life of my brother, Stephen Jeffrey Bolinger, who died way too soon and only five years after he put that firewood on our grandmother’s grave.