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A Memorial Day Promise to My Family

She made a vow to her father to always tend the family graves

(This article was originally published in May 2014.)

While friends look forward to barbecues and boating during the first long weekend of the summer, I’m making plans for my annual cemetery tour in northwest Missouri.

I promised my dad before he died that I’d put flowers on his parents’ grave, as well as his, every Memorial Day. Although he knew my mom would, he wanted reassurance that someone would continue the tradition after she was gone.

I remember riding in the car with the windows down in those pre-air conditioning days, foil-covered coffee cans full of peonies and irises balanced on the floor.

My mom’s still here, but I’ve made a point of visiting the graves every year.

It has sometimes been a challenge. My daughter was six and my son was five-months-old when my dad died. Through the years, I’ve worked in my cemetery visits around dance recitals, baseball games, and end-of-school picnics and award programs.

I’ve sandwiched the 200-mile round-trip between dropping the kids off at school in the morning and arriving in time for the afternoon pickup.

When possible, I’ve brought my children along to share in the family stories, although the school year’s extension into June makes that tough.

A Longtime Tradition

I remember, as a child, riding in the backseat of a car with the windows down in those pre-air conditioning days, foil-covered coffee cans full of peonies and irises balanced on the floor around my feet.

We’d go to two cemeteries near Pattonsburg, Mo., the tiny town where my mother grew up. At Oak Ridge, five generations of grandmothers are buried; I remember three of them. The oldest, Sarah Jane Miller Barger Dowell Hays, traveled from Kentucky to Missouri in a covered wagon, survived three husbands and raised nine children.

When I visit my father’s grave at Prairie Home Cemetery, near Graham, Mo., sometimes driving over the same two-lane blacktops and gravel roads he favored, I can hear his voice, pointing out the farm where James and Charlotte Reese homesteaded after leaving upstate New York in the late 1860s. Jesse James spent a night in their barn, so it was told.

The Origins of Memorial Day

At least two dozen communities, throughout the North and South, claim to be the first ones where women cleaned up and decorated the graves of soldiers killed during the Civil War. One report says that freed slaves reburied Union soldiers from a mass grave near Charleston, S.C. in May 1865, followed by a parade and celebration.

The 30th of May was proclaimed as Decoration Day when Gen. John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, issued General Order No. 11 in 1868. Congress changed Memorial Day to the last Monday of May in 1971.

“Thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of flags” will be placed on the individual graves of veterans, said Mike Buss, deputy director of The American Legion’s national headquarters in Indianapolis, Ind. It’s done by local chapters of The American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, working with Boy Scouts, Cub Scouts and other organizations.

“In the morning, flags will fly at half-mast to thank those who gave the ultimate sacrifice of their lives in defense of our freedom, until noon when the flags are raised to full-staff to thank those who are still living, who are either on active duty or who have served,” Buss said. It’s the only time a flag is at half-mast for just part of the day.

Thousands of people typically to attend a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery where the President lays a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Overseas, French schoolchildren are dismissed from school to lay roses on the more than 14,000 graves of American servicemen in Meuse-Argonne Cemetery, travel writer Diana Lambdin Meyer, based in Kansas City, Mo., told me.

And here at home at 3 p.m. local time, there’s the National Moment of Remembrance to stop and be grateful to the more than 1 million men and women who have died serving their country since the Revolutionary War.

A New Tradition

Sometime in the 1900s, people started remembering all of a family’s deceased loved ones, not just those killed in war, when they decorated graves.

A number of my friends, especially in my hometown, report they’ll be visiting two or more cemeteries over the weekend. Others would like to, but have moved too far away or simply are too busy with other activities.

Just as the tradition of decorating graves once grew, now it seems to be fading.

I don’t know that my own kids will continue our annual cemetery tour after they leave home.

But as technology has changed other aspects of our lives, it might help us stay connected to the graves of our loved ones with findagrave.com. The website’s founder, Jim Tipton, said he wanted to create a virtual cemetery, “an online surrogate” for the real thing.

Indeed, you can find my grandparents on the site. If I chose, I could even place — for free — a virtual bouquet of flowers “on” their graves and leave a personal message.

Maybe my kids will carry on the family tradition of remembering in the cyber world.

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