Finding the Living Among the Dead

My daughter and I traveled to Wales in 2005 to find my third great grandfather’s grave. When we found it (after extensive research before our trip), we purchased some local flowers and left those flowers and a note attached to those flowers for anyone who might visit the grave later. If someone visited the grave, they may be a relative, even if distant.

Many people lurk around cemeteries and family grave sites on Memorial Day or during a town’s “Decoration Day”* for many reasons – one is to pay respect to the dead, but the other is in hopes of finding or seeing long-lost or totally lost relations. In other cases, entire families visit the cemetery to have picnics and to meet friends who aren’t lost (or dead) at all.

Cemeteries were the precursors to public parks, according to Sharon DeBartolo Carmack, author of Your Guide to Cemetery Research. The elite garden cemetery (such as Cave Hill Cemetery located in Louisville, Kentucky – the image shown here is the main entrance to Cave Hill Cemetery, Baxter Avenue) was designed for the dead, but also to appeal to the living. I wish I had known that some folks use cemeteries as meeting places before I visited Hawaii a few decades ago. Perhaps, then, I would not have been shocked at the families who gathered in cemeteries to sit on headstones while they munched away on poi or chicken and drank canned juice.

This tradition of picnicking at cemeteries truly is unique to Hawaii, and eating and socializing together at a relative’s or friend’s grave is not reserved for holidays. In one instance, a family gathers at a mother’s grave on her birthday. “It’s the idea like even if she were at home, she would just be sitting there listening to the conversation,” her daughter said. “She’s gone but she’s not forgotten.”

In her book, Carmack encourages family gatherings at cemeteries or taking a tour of cemeteries where ancestors are buried. She believes that this type of gathering is one way for younger family members to learn more about their families. She states that “cemeteries are also a wonderful place to teach children about respect for the dead and the sacredness of the final resting place.” These teachings, perhaps, can help to avoid future vandalism by explaining that the cemetery like “a museum without walls.”

* Decoration Day is a holiday celebrated mainly in the south at the local level. This holiday began after the Civil War and it was encouraged to help decorate the many graves of the Confederate dead. Northern citizens, however, were doing the same, and it was decided to merge the practice and create a national holiday. Decoration Day first was celebrated nationally on 30 May 1868. According to the Memorial Day History site:

Traditional observance of Memorial day has diminished over the years. Many Americans nowadays have forgotten the meaning and traditions of Memorial Day. At many cemeteries, the graves of the fallen are increasingly ignored, neglected. Most people no longer remember the proper flag etiquette for the day. While there are towns and cities that still hold Memorial Day parades, many have not held a parade in decades. Some people think the day is for honoring any and all dead, and not just those fallen in service to our country.

There are a few notable exceptions. Since the late 50’s on the Thursday before Memorial Day, the 1,200 soldiers of the 3d U.S. Infantry place small American flags at each of the more than 260,000 gravestones at Arlington National Cemetery. They then patrol 24 hours a day during the weekend to ensure that each flag remains standing. In 1951, the Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts of St. Louis began placing flags on the 150,000 graves at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery as an annual Good Turn, a practice that continues to this day. More recently, beginning in 1998, on the Saturday before the observed day for Memorial Day, the Boys Scouts and Girl Scouts place a candle at each of approximately 15,300 grave sites of soldiers buried at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park on Marye’s Heights (the Luminaria Program). And in 2004, Washington D.C. held its first Memorial Day parade in over 60 years.

To help re-educate and remind Americans of the true meaning of Memorial Day, the “National Moment of Remembrance” resolution was passed on Dec 2000 which asks that at 3 p.m. local time, for all Americans “To voluntarily and informally observe in their own way a Moment of remembrance and respect, pausing from whatever they are doing for a moment of silence or listening to ‘Taps.’

The Moment of Remembrance is a step in the right direction to returning the meaning back to the day. What is needed is a full return to the original day of observance. Set aside one day out of the year for the nation to get together to remember, reflect and honor those who have given their all in service to their country.

But what may be needed to return the solemn, and even sacred, spirit back to Memorial Day is for a return to its traditional day of observance. Many feel that when Congress made the day into a three-day weekend in with the National Holiday Act of 1971, it made it all the easier for people to be distracted from the spirit and meaning of the day. As the VFW stated in its 2002 Memorial Day address: “Changing the date merely to create three-day weekends has undermined the very meaning of the day. No doubt, this has contributed greatly to the general public’s nonchalant observance of Memorial Day.”

On January 19, 1999 Senator Inouye introduced bill S 189 to the Senate which proposes to restore the traditional day of observance of Memorial Day back to May 30th instead of “the last Monday in May”. On April 19, 1999 Representative Gibbons introduced the bill to the House (H.R. 1474). The bills were referred the Committee on the Judiciary and the Committee on Government Reform.

So, the next time you visit a cemetery (if you ever do), take a look around and notice the living among the dead. You might realize that cemeteries – while useful as resting places for the dead – also are useful places to meet among the living.

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