As a child, Memorial Day or Decoration Day in the United States always fell on May 30th no matter what day of the week it happened to fall. Schools and businesses closed, parades happened but most importantly, we took the time to honor those brave men and women of the armed forces that gave their all so we could enjoy the life we are blessed enough to live.
As a child, Decoration Day was the preferred name for this holiday until the late 1960’s when it became Memorial Day by order of the US Congress. Decoration Day always meant a day to go out to the cemetery to clean and decorate the graves of relatives and friends.
My mother, God rest her soul, dropped the ball on this holiday. She did not believe in going to visit graves. Her very devout belief in a life after death lead her to believe there was no benefit in going to cemeteries because as Mom always said, “they wont know we’re here because they’re not here. We will see them again in heaven”. In my entire life, I never knew my Mom to visit a grave after a funeral with one exception and that was Dad’s and only to make sure the stone was engraved correctly.
Well, thank goodness for my Aunt Lil. I think I must have been about 9 when Auntie Lil taught me to respect and honor this holiday and those that went before us by cleaning and decorating graves. Each May we would load the car with a bucket, brush, towels, plus other cleaning supplies, a hand rake and grass clippers to trim around the stones and a few flowers from her garden. We’d head for Cedar Park Cemetery where most of her family and one of my dearest friends were buried. This special time with Auntie Lil helped me learn that honoring those we no longer see but still love helps the grieving process. As an 8 year old child I lost my best friend, Auntie Lil’s niece, and it was this grave that I focused all my energies on when visiting the cemetery. I thoroughly cleaned the stone with a brush and water, trimmed the grass around her stone to keep it neat and tidy, then we laid a few flowers and said a prayer that her soul was at peace. Auntie Lil cleaned all the other graves and I just took care of one but it was important to me to do a good job, to honor my friend’s memory, and to gain a bit of closure. And each year until I was in high school, we cleaned that grave just before Memorial day. I do not remember what happened that made us stop but I had not been back to my friend’s grave until my Uncle Wayne died a year and a half ago. He is buried in the family area near my friend’s grave and it made me remember going with Auntie Lil and those special days we shared. This year due to Auntie Lil’s failing health and advanced age she was not able to go; so I felt honored to be able to take care of her family graves and my dear friend’s from 55 years ago.
This week, I visited several cemeteries as we get ready to observe Memorial Day; my husband’s parents and grandparents, my paternal grandparents, my parents, my maternal grandparents, my son’s grave, Auntie Lil’s family plots and my friend’s gravestone. Sort of a marathon of cemetery visiting but so worth the time spent peacefully remembering each one of those we’ve lost.
The one cemetery I visited that truly represents the spirit of Memorial Day is the Abe Lincoln cemetery in Elwood, Illinois where my parents are buried. This cemetery opened only twenty years ago covering the 982 acres formerly known as the Joliet Arsenal, the Abe Lincoln National Cemetery buries free of charge any honorably discharged veteran and their spouses. When fully occupied, there will be 400,000 spaces. Since my father was buried just five years ago the cemetery seems to have doubled in number of graves and is currently under construction building more columbarium space for cremated remains.
In addition to the vast fields of grave markers, there is a beautiful refection garden right in the middle of this national cemetery with over 15 memorial markers dedicated to veteran groups. At the entry to this peaceful garden the volunteers and friends of the Abe Lincoln National Cemetery erected a life-size statue of Abel Lincoln and a bench carved with words from his last public speech where he admonished the country to take care of those that gave the ultimate sacrifice.
The feelings of awe and honor are evident as you pull into this hallowed place; every road lined with American flags, every tombstone a testament to honorable military service, and at every turn row upon row of headstones lined up in military precision. This vast area exudes an atmosphere of reverent serenity, and peaceful quiet; eerily quiet broken only by bird song, the flapping noise made by waving flags, and an occasional rifle volley from the many daily honor services attended by friends, family and a memorial squad made up of volunteers giving each veteran their last military honors; removal, folding and presentation of the flag covering the casket with a sincere thank you for your loved one’s military service, a 21-gun salute and the playing of Taps. These members of the Abe Lincoln Memorial Squad volunteer their time to make certain each veteran is honored at each burial. The committal shelters are spaced far enough apart that one funeral never infringes on another allowing families and loved ones the honor of grieving privately in quiet dignity.
The one accomplishment my father was most proud of was his military service so it’s only fitting that the Abe Lincoln National Cemetery is Dad’s final resting place. Dad was a flag waving, National Anthem singing, proud American veteran of the Korean conflict. He taught us to love each other, be dedicated to our family, love our country and be proud to be American citizens. There is nowhere else on earth that one can feel more proud to be an American than in a national cemetery like the Abe Lincoln.
The day I visited Dad and Mom’s grave, the sun shone brightly, a slight breeze fluttered the flags on poles lining the drives and birdsong filled the air. So peaceful, so quietly peaceful. The perfect day for reflecting on two long lives well lived; Mom lived 80 years and Dad 84. Years of love and laughter with each other and a family that returned that love a hundredfold. Memorial Day originally intended to honor those that gave the ultimate sacrifice in duty to their country in my mind also honors all those we’ve lost, whose laughter we’ll never hear again, whose face we’ll never see again and who made a difference in our lives; helping mold us into the people we became because of their input and love. So, thank you to all those we’ve lost that made our lives what they are today and a big thank you to Auntie Lil for teaching me this important life lesson.
May you be comforted this Memorial Day Weekend with memories of love and lives well lived.