Ramona's picture

    On Hallowed Ground: A Memorial Day look at Cemeteries

    Memorial Day is a United States federal holiday observed on the last Monday of May. Formerly known as Decoration Day, it commemorates U.S. Service Members who died while in the military service.[1] First enacted by formerly enslaved African-Americans [2] to honor Union soldiers of the American Civil War – it was extended after World War I to honor Americans who have died in all wars.

    Memorial Day often marks the start of the summer vacation season, and Labor Day its end.
    Begun as a ritual of remembrance and reconciliation after the Civil War, by the early 20th century, Memorial Day was an occasion for more general expressions of memory, as ordinary people visited the graves of their deceased relatives, whether they had served in the military or not. (Wikipedia - Memorial Day)

    This is a day of pilgrimage in big cities and small villages all across the country.  Cemeteries will be filled with people cleaning headstones, placing flowers, connecting and remembering.  There will be life in those places of internment.  I see cemeteries not as sad and depressing depositories of the dead, but as vibrant places alive with personalities, infused with memories, steeped in unique beauty.  I see them as outdoor galleries of fine art and folk art, ripe for photographing, which I do every chance I get, but with the sense that I am treading on hallowed ground.

    In honor of fallen soldiers, of friends and family no longer with us, of people whose lives we know only from symbols on a headstone, I offer these today:

    The General - Gettysburg


    The Copse of Trees - Gettysburg


    Unitarian Church graveyard - Charleston, SC

    A brother and sister sculpted in a glass casket - Conway, SC


    "Here lies the body of Catherina Spano born 17 May 1853 died Oct 29 1900"  """"  Apalachicola, FL Cemetery


    Old Cliff Mine Cemetery, Keweenaw Peninsula, MI


    Myrtle carpets the ground at Old Cliff Mine Cemetery, Keweenaw Peninsula, MI


    Decorated grave at Old Mission Cemetery, Brimley, MI


    Old Mission Indian Cemetery, Hessel, MI

    Memorials for sailors gone down with the Edmund Fitzgerald -- Whitefish Point, MI

    When the time comes, I'll be buried in a plot in a small township cemetery in the Keweenaw Peninsula. My parents and much of my mother's family are already buried there. Anything goes in that cemetery -- one of the reasons my husband and I chose it. People have installed benches and arbors and rocking chairs, turning their family plots into symbols and extensions of the lives that went before. Children's toys are scattered, as if the child has left them only momentarily.  Pictures, beads, notes and Lake Superior beach stone cairns decorate the sites. It's the kind of place you would want to stop by and visit. I like that.
    (Please note:  All photos Copyright: Ramona's Voices.  Ask permission before using.)



    Yale University Professor David Blight has fund evidence that former Black slaves in South Carolina organized the first "Memorial Day' in 1865, three years before the nationally declared celebration. The event took place at a former prisoner of war camp in Charleston,South Carolina that imprisoned Union soldiers. Many Union soldiers died in the camp and were not properly buried.

    Former Black slaves came to the prison camp after the South had surrendered and buried the soldiers properly. A ceremony honoring the Union soldier's was held after the burial.

    He came across the papers documenting the event in a folder labeled "First Decoration Day"

    Blight noted:

    Following the Confederate surrender ending the Civil War, blacks went to the place where hundreds of prisoners had been buried, many in mass graves.

    “Blacks, many of them recently freed slaves, buried the soldiers properly. They put up a fence around the area and painted it. More than 260 were buried there. We don’t know the names. We don’t know the race,” Blight told BlackAmericaWeb.com.

    Following the burials, there was a ceremony.
    Blight found more information about the rites in old newspapers and magazines such as Harper’s Weekly. Several large newspapers from the North would send reporters into the South to cover the war and its aftermath, with some writing narratives with great detail, Blight said.

    “At 9 a.m. on May 1, a procession stepped off, led by 3,000 black schoolchildren carrying arm loads of roses and singing. The children were followed by several hundred black women with baskets of flowers, wreaths and crosses. Then came black men marching in cadence, followed by contingents of Union infantry and other black and white citizens," Blight said. “As many as possible gathered in the cemetery enclosure; a children’s' choir sang 'We'll Rally Around the Flag,' 'The Star-Spangled Banner' and several spirituals before several black ministers read from scripture. This was their way of saying what the war meant to me and what America means to me. They were now freed men and women.”



    The day is not about sales or picnics, but honoring those who gave their lives in service to the United States of America.


    Yes, I learned about the origins of Memorial Day and shared that with my wife Friday night as I happen to be in the course of reading Blight's book Race and Reunion.  As you note, it was originally called Decoration Day and was celebrated on many different days in many different states until eventually it became the national holiday it is today.

    Reading Blight's book has also prompted me to order a collection of the writings of Frederick Douglass.  Our family heard a reading of his famous July 4th speech in DC a couple of years ago. My appreciation of his role, apparent heavy influence on Lincoln's thought even though they met only 3 times FTF, and sheer skill and intelligence as an orator continues to grow.

    Blight's book is a treasure

    Interesting.  I read somewhere that it was actually black women who started the movement to bury the soldiers properly.  I agree that the day was originally set aside to honor servicemen and women, and the emphasis is still there, but it has evolved into a day of remembrance for all who've died.

    I watched the Memorial Day concert on PBS last night.  Incredibly moving.  Hooray for PBS.  (I'm waiting for the day when we're remembering those lost in long-past wars only.)

    I have no doubt the women originated the idea.

    This is just a beautiful presentation.

    Thank you!

    Thanks, DD.  It was hard to choose which pictures to use.  I've somehow lost two of the pictures I was going to use.  They're beautiful female figures and I guess they didn't want to appear in public because they're nowhere to be seen.

    Latest Comments