May 25, 2007

Faithful Lines / Shirley Vogler Meister

Reflections on a Memorial Day tradition

Shirley Vogler MeisterOne of the blessings of living in one’s hometown area is that family cemeteries are nearby.

However, because my husband and I raised our daughters 200 miles away from there, when Memorial Day weekends came along we were not able to place flowers or wreaths or something else significant on the graves of our departed loved ones.

This tradition was better upheld by the generations before us who stayed near home. The Memorial Day tradition has nearly been lost in our immediate family because our daughters now live elsewhere, too.

When Paul and I visit our hometown of Belleville, Ill., our time is usually so limited that we don’t regularly visit the gravesites of deceased loved ones. But when we can do this, our cemetery visits are bittersweet and I am sure this must be the case for most families.

Memorial Day, formerly called Decoration Day, dates back to Greece more than 2,500 years ago when, according to ancient customs, garlands and flowers were placed on the graves of community heroes.

During the American Civil War, both the United States and the Confederate States observed Memorial Days. Allegedly, the city of Waterloo, N.Y., was recognized as being where the first such services were held after the Civil War.

However, I recently learned that Gen. John A. Logan was probably the first person to be inspired to promote Decoration Day after being the principal speaker at a cemetery service in Carbondale, Ill., close to my hometown.

Decoration Day was formally acknowledged in 1868. The civilian practice of families honoring their families came before and after that, but Memorial Day weekend is now more popular.

In Indiana, it seems that the traditional Indianapolis 500 race almost usurps the limelight from the old traditions for Memorial Day weekend. Yet, they are still practiced both in public and in private, with the main public event this year being held on May 25 at the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument downtown.

Private family traditions are important. I admire families who will not only decorate ancestral graves this weekend, but also regularly place timely tributes on the graves of loved ones throughout the year. My husband’s mother always did this.

Because of distance, my family is an example of one that has slipped from such regular tributes, and I find that sad.

Yet, in my heart I know that my prayers and thoughts of dearly departed loved ones are just as valid even if I am nowhere near the cemeteries where they are buried. I can feel close to my parents when attending Mass or special devotions—and even when falling asleep at night or working quietly in the yard.

Being within the communion of saints is such a Catholic blessing!

(Shirley Vogler Meister, a member of Christ the King Parish in Indianapolis, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.) †

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