Living in Society Social Commentary

Cemeteries and Decorations

Flags at Oakland Cemetery
Flags at Oakland Cemetery

BIG GROVE TOWNSHIP, Iowa — A couple of years ago the Solon American Legion moved their annual Memorial Day commemoration from Oakland Cemetery to the new service memorial at American Legion Field.

As remaining World War II veterans depart on their long journey after this life, the new field is level, lessening the possibility of a fall for increasingly fragile nonagenarians.

The annual event seems better attended since moving to town.

The township trustees consider the condition of the cemetery before Memorial Day and the legion adorns its roadway with full-sized American flags with the names of local veterans on each flag post. We want the cemetery to present well regardless of where the event is held. After inspections, we decided it looked good for the holiday, although the trash barrels needed emptying.

Memorial Day began as Decoration Day in 1868 — a remembrance established by the Grand Army of the Republic to recognize union soldier deaths while defending against the rebellion. Confederate women had begun decorating graves during the earliest years of the long war that took 620,000 lives. It was traditional to visit the family cemetery and enjoy a picnic lunch and family reunion near remains of the departed. It took an act of Congress (the National Holiday Act of 1971) to sort out differences and competing claims of the remembrance. In many places traditions have vanished as family cemeteries gave way to cremation and burial in larger, public and commercial places of rest.

Just as grilling at home or at a park supplanted picnics near the deceased, and Memorial Day gets confused with Veterans Day, not many here think about what divided the North and South in the 1860s. Neither is there common cause in the deaths perpetrated by our modern national militarism. Our constant state of warfare has become a part of background noise many people try to ignore.

My ancestors and shirt tail relatives in Virginia fought on both sides of the Civil War and those roots provided me a form of ethnic identity — an indigenous culture shared by a localized clan of kinfolk. I’m not sure such culture is even possible today.

As for this Memorial Day, I’ll be working a shift at the home, farm and auto supply store and unable to attend the commemoration.

Memorial Day will start the summer vacation season, like it does for most Americans, and be a chance to relax after getting the garden planted. The bloody wars our country has fought and continues fighting will seem distant for a while… almost an abstraction. I’m not alone in that. Even drone pilots can go home after a shift to spend time with their families.

Memorial Day is part of a procession of life events that helps things seem stable and predictable. We want that as politicians and corporate news media slam us with bad news and frightening potentialities every time we tune in on a device. The idea that the dead don’t move unless someone made a mistake, and that grave decorations aren’t intended to be permanent provides comfort.

On the way to my shift I’ll stop briefly at the cemetery and pay my respects to neighbors killed in action, most of whom I didn’t know. Such deaths seem tragic and complex — clouded in a present that assigns new values to them. I’ll stand in silence on the hill among old oak trees considering the meaning of honor and valor and why it’s still important. I hope that’s decoration enough.

~ Written for Blog for Iowa