how do you “celebrate”?
Memorial Day was established as a federal holiday in …
… wait for it….
I was surprised.
I have always thought it began with the First World War and that was the reason for the red poppies — which I had sort of forgotten. But I found a good history link here. And there’s some wonderful other links on the home page, here, about this day that signals the unofficial start of summer.
Memorial Day was set to commemorate the dead from “the late unpleasantness,” as old southerners called it, when there were still some whose grandparents knew people who’d fought in it.
The war between the states is a complicated chunk of history, but tens of thousands of US died on our own soil, fighting each other over ideology and commerce. It was a bitter, long-lasting sorrow. In some ways, we have not totally recovered, because our political divisions still seem to split geographically.
Memorial Day is also when we dress the graves of our dead. Whether they fought in wars or not … a tradition which may not survive past my own generation, which is aging out as we speak.
My sister and cousins in Maine visit and care for our families’ graves in the little mill town where our close knit Danish community was centered. Three of our cousins crossed paths in the cemetery on Friday, in fact.
My sister missed them by a few days.
But my sister had taken photos of our great-grandparents’ graves, and their brothers and sisters, our great aunts and uncles. She calls it the “Hall of Fame” because of their proud proclamation of their faith. Every one of them.
Not a proclamation of themselves. Just their names, their years of life, and “Saved by Grace,” and “Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord,” “Jesus died for us,” and similar simple statements. What stalwarts these people were. They left the island of Danmark, got on steamships and crossed the Atlantic, to come to little New England towns and work in mills. For minimum wage.
Often the adult children came first, including the young women, who set up homes, for the rest to follow. They didn’t drive across a border and get greeted with social services and a guaranteed stipend. Until the end of their days, my grandparents lived humbly and simply, and shared everything with those in need. Including their faith.
So, it is wonderful for their children and grandchildren to be honoring them. Planting lovely flowers, which will bloom all summer, in quiet respect.
Acknowledging the dead takes many forms. Mostly respectful, if sometimes odd.
Jim Morrison’s grave in Pere Lachaise in Paris, for example, is an ever changing monument to everything from excess to poetry. Evidently, over the years, they’ve had to change the rules and regs around Jim’s little island of marble, and during the pandemic they had timed visits. And special tours.
Clearly some graves have their own cache. And some have none. A lady in a shop recently told me she stopped decorating her mother’s grave because people kept stealing what she put there. We shook our heads at the karma of that….
Some graveyards are single families. And some are full of friends.
A whole posse of the signers of the Declaration of Independence are buried in a little group of historic churchyards in Charleston, mostly unnoticed, unless you know to look, or stumble upon one…literally.
Those cemeteries were closed altogether for awhile, due to the pandemic, and “dangerous” gates and walkways. I realize the gates and walkways are old and we live in a litigious society, but those churchyards are history. Stumble through them, and learn.
Then again, the ruin of Sheldon Church, just down the road from us is a lesson, too. Thanks to people defacing it, they had to put a fence around it, because….history : there is respect for it, and there are those who want to erase it.
Which is why I am going on and on about Memorial Day, and ancestors, and history.
If we don’t respect it…
…study it…understand how it unfolded and why…
If we just tear it down because parts of it “offends” our “modern sensibilities…”
…well, that doesn’t end well for US.
I used to wander through the cemeteries in Istria and Dalmatia. Many of the little towns in that part of the world go back a millennium, or two. The old graves are worn, fallen over, scoured by time into shadows and scratches. You can only wonder at the stories.
The newer graves, in their own section, have mini-biographies and framed photos behind glass. Or photos acid-etched into the marble. These graves are fascinating, like a strange library of biographies, all written in a paragraph or two, with pictures. Sometimes narrative art besides the portrait, too. A life, well…carved in stone!
While fascinating, for an old cemetery buff like me, there is also something a little off-putting about it. Don’t get me wrong, the voyeurism was as entertaining as the tabloids. How else would you know that an angelic photo belied a “beloved motorcyle club, the Deaths Heads.” (I wouldn’t have known either, without friends to translate!) That the tough looking dude never married, but raised award-winning chinchillas. Does that make them more, or less intriguing? Let’s just say, the families involved had the best of intentions and leave it at that.
But my favorite grave stone is in a little cemetery in a tiny Lowcountry town between us and a grocery store. We drove by it again and again until I saw it clearly. Then I started watching for it, because it got decorated differently than all the other graves.
The gravestone is a small cow.
She’s about 3 feet tall and 5 feet long. And every season she gets a wreath hung around her neck.
After years of driving by her, and looking to see if she was wearing a lei of flowers for spring, or a red-white & blue wreath for the 4th — I finally stopped one day and walked in. It is a family cemetery, but there was no name on the cow. She was in a family group of stones but nothing at all on her. Except the wreath. (Which I think was evergreen and redbowed for Christmas.)
I did take a picture. And I’m pretty sure I posted it on Instagram — but I haven’t been on that for years, and I can’t find the stone cow monument photo anywhere, in my thousands of “saved” pictures….so….I’ll stop on my way through that pretty little crossroads next week, and photograph her again.
I’ll post her here. Perhaps I’ll find out more about the family. And if they are documented in the USGenWeb Tombstone Transcription Project….it’s a good jumping off point for some more local lore.
Perhaps we’llexplore the southern plantation custom called a “chapel of ease.” It is what our cherished Sheldon ruins was, in the days before the Civil War.
In the meantime, here is some other history. And another link also — that shows the time and effort people are making to preserve the information in these old cemeteries. Even with few pictures, the information is valuable for people searching for their own families.
Some day, down the road, when everyone isn’t so “going to Mars” — a bronze child with violet eyes may find her great great great grandmother, under a spreading live oak hung with swamp moss, and be glad a few amateur historians in the 21st century drove around a county in South Carolina documenting gravestones.
I noticed lots of local place names among the two links, and some street names from our own town. Names, on old weathered stones, of people who were loved enough to be remembered.
And the neighbors around the graves today don’t sit on the stones and smoke crack, or steal urns…..or leave “joints for Jim.”
We set aside days to remember our own families, and total strangers — because we respect those who cut the path through the woods… built the farms and towns and cities, and kept it safe and clean and free…
Memorial Day remembers soldiers who died to keep us free. And we extend the gesture to others no longer with us.
…so a group of old Danish Lutherans smile down from heaven, on their children’s children’s children, in Maine, who planted fresh flowers to honor them.
My son’s father, my husband who had served as a submariner right before Vietnam, and who died in 1985, is buried among all those Danish Lutherans in Maine, because they are the closest thing to family he ever had and it seemed like the best place for his simple VA marker and the ashes left over from the several oceans we carried them to.
He already knew and loved my own parents, who are nestled among the immigrants, so I have always pictured them all having a hilarious time together in heaven. My funny Aunt Millie, and Uncle Larry, and the two Kens, keeping everyone laughing. Uncle Warren, who served as part of The Greatest Generation, will be smiling and winking at my mom.
If heaven is the best of each of us, restored and perfected, then laughter will be unavoidable in our family circle.
Even the serious hardworking Danes are free to laugh in heaven. They were “Saved by Jesus,” and we know they are with Him.
What a legacy.