When I was child growing up in central Iowa, on Memorial Day—or “Decoration Day,” as my family called it—we put flowers on the graves of all our relatives to honor their memories. This usually required most of a day as the relatives were buried in various little cemeteries in a 30 mile radius around my hometown. My mom and her sister, my Aunt Linda, always organized the cemetery visiting, and other relatives would occasionally join in. This may sound like a somber occasion; actually it was anything but. We had so much fun!
We loaded the car with a picnic basket holding our lunch and a couple boxes holding the flowers for decorating the graves: sometimes lilacs in Mason jars, or lily of the valley bunched together with twists of aluminum foil, or sprays of silk flowers. Then we began our adventure, driving from cemetery to cemetery, one in town and the others scattered on gravel country roads surrounded by just-planted corn fields. We laughed, told stories, and enjoyed the sunshine.
Trudging through the cemeteries searching for relatives, Mom and Aunt Linda often came across grave markers of people they hadn’t thought about in years, and they told the deceased’s stories. Whether the tales were sad, silly, irritating, funny, or heart-wrenching, I loved hearing them, and I learned so much about the lives of these tough farm women and men. Sometimes I found unadorned graves, and I pestered my mom to give me some of our flowers to lay on them because I was heartbroken that these folks were not remembered on Memorial Day.
Eventually we would find the grave stones we were looking for, pull the weeds and grass that had grown up around them, and set down our flowers. Then we’d be off to the next cemetery, Mom and Aunt Linda exchanging remembrances as we bobbed along the miles of country road.
Now I live outside of Chicago, and the 350 miles between me and my hometown prevent me from continuing our Memorial Day tradition. It bothers me that my dad is buried in one of those little cemeteries, and my family has all moved away so no one is able to put flowers on his grave this Memorial Day. I remember as a kid feeling bad for those people with unadorned graves, thinking that no one remembered them on Memorial Day. Now I realize that, at least in some cases, those loved ones were remembered, but by family members who couldn’t be there to put flowers on their graves.
With that in mind, Abby and I went to a local cemetery today armed with silk flowers from the dollar store. We walked around looking at the grave stones and wondering aloud about the people’s lives, who was connected to whom, and how they died. We looked for grave markers that compelled us to put our flowers on them. We put our flowers on graves with no other decoration, one for a woman named Mary with the maiden name McCoy—the same as Abby’s grandma—who ironically died in the same year as our Grandma Mary. We found the grave of a boy who died when he was attending the same middle school that Abby attended. We put flowers on the grave of a girl who died when she was 14 years old, a year younger than Abby. We found the gravestone of a woman born in 1863 and who died in 1947 and decided that she deserved flowers because she had lived to be 84 at a time when most people didn’t live that long, and because it had probably been a long time since her grave was decorated.
My favorite, though, was the grave marker of a man who died when he was only 41 years old. When Abby was in kindergarten her friend “Sarah” lost her dad to a heart attack. This was Sarah’s dad. Several years ago Sarah’s family moved back to Indiana to be close to her grandparents. The grave had some perennials lovingly planted around it, but nothing was blooming yet and there were no signs that anyone had visited the grave recently. So Abby and I placed our favorite spray of flowers on Sarah’s dad’s grave in honor of Abby’s grade school friend and her family.
Although I can’t put flowers on my dad’s grave today, I am happy that I could honor other people’s lives by putting flowers on their graves. I’m especially pleased that we could decorate Sarah’s dad’s grave. I hope someone is doing the same for my dad at that little cemetery in Iowa.