The graves of our loved ones inspire comfort, tears, memories and a sense of belonging. In other words, graves matter. Decoration Day at our local cemeteries, a time when graves throughout the South are filled with colorful flowers and fond memories, are a testament to this. The tradition symbolizes our connection to loved ones and honors the footprints they have engraved on our hearts. Of course, they never really leave us, especially on holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, and just about any time something triggers a shared memory. “Decoration Day” at the cemetery is a sentimental ritual that celebrates all these treasures and seems to be standing the test of time.
For me, honoring loved ones with flowers on Decoration Day was somewhat of a rite of passage – the time when the reality hit that I had reached that point in life that I should share in this responsibility. I remember the first time I got up early on Sunday morning to prepare the flowers for our family graves. They were cut flowers, peonies to be exact, from my garden. The idea of preparing a vase of flowers from my garden somehow made it more personal and special. I must admit, I fretted a little that my flowers would not produce the same “wow” factor of the beautiful, professionally-arranged flowers, but decided that the sentiment attached would be meaningful nonetheless.
This year while “decorating,” we were blessed to visit with our dear friend, Doris who was placing flowers on the graves of her family and even some of her friends. Each gravestone held the memory of a person who had somehow enriched her life. One of those was the resting place of the couple who loaned her late husband $10 to pay the cost of getting married, a loan long-since repaid but never forgotten. She spoke about where her friends and family members were buried, as if describing a familiar subdivision or neighborhood. The cemetery was a community of her family and friends who she will surely see again in due time.
The significance of the first Sunday in June used to cross my mind casually, but the day takes on more importance as I get older. Remembering and appreciating those who helped shape my life is harder to take for granted. The more I learn about the grandparents I never knew and reminisce about the ones I did know and love, the more I admire them for the trials they endured with grace and strength. I appreciate the fact that there is a physical place where my family roots are planted with the names engraved in stone, a “constant” in an ever-changing world. I’m glad there is a place where the names will be honored — by those who knew them, those who knew of them and by future generations who will want to know more about them.
We’re planning a daytrip with our older grandchildren this summer to the cemeteries of our family. I haven’t figured out how to make this seem like fun yet to middleschoolers — we will probably bundle it with a trip to Ralph’s or the Dairy Queen or the Snow Shack, but it will absolutely include a history lesson about our relatives who survived – and even thrived – through hard financial times, wars and personal losses. We will share pictures and stories, talk about the events that shaped their lives, marvel at their courage and perseverence, and express thanks for the faith that helped them through it all.
Singer Bob Dylan once said of the cemeteries in New Orleans, “The past doesn’t pass away so quickly here. You could be dead for a long time.” Cemeteries steward the link between life and death and hold the heritage of our communities, churches and families. They also spur my faith in a future resurrection that is beyond all I could hope for or imagine.