Memorial Day: “Looking Back”

Reprinted here by special permission of the author, Cindy Beckman, a retired Conway High School history teacher who writes local history.

For many, Memorial Day marks the beginning of summer. Families will celebrate the three-day weekend by going to the lake, having cookouts or just enjoying some much needed time off.

But the original reason for the holiday was to remember and honor our military.

Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day. It wasn’t until 1971 that Congress made it a national holiday. The National Holiday Act designated the last Monday of May as a federal holiday to honor those who died defending our country.

Since Decoration Day was first set up in 1868 to honor those who died defending our country in the Civil War, most southern states refused to celebrate the day because it had been designated to honor Union forces. Southern states instead chose a variety of other days to honor Confederate soldiers who died during the war. After World War I, when Decoration Day became a day to honor those who had fought in any war, southern states began to observe the holiday.

Decoration Day actually goes back much further than 1868 in Arkansas. Most Arkansas communities set aside a day each spring to honor those in their community who had passed away. The day was usually held at the church or community cemetery in the area. It would be an all-day affair.

Before Decoration Day could be celebrated, however, the community had to gather for Cleaning Day. Back in the days before lawnmowers, the cemeteries were often only cut and cleaned once a year. Everyone would turn out in their work clothes to cut the grass with hand tools, upright fallen stones and clean up all the debris that had accumulated during the year.

Decoration Day would usually occur during the next weekend or so. It was so important to the community that it was at this time, rather than Easter or Christmas, that people got a new set of clothes. Everyone wore their best suits and dresses out to the cemetery for the occasion.

Because people often had family buried in multiple cemeteries, these days were scheduled so that people could attend multiple Decoration Days and honor their relatives at each cemetery.

There were a variety of activities during the day. Preachers would give an hour-long sermon or two, poems would read and sometimes multiple funerals would be conducted. While burials occurred almost immediately after a person died, often funerals would not be conducted until a traveling preacher could be present. These funerals were often highlighted by someone reading a long eulogy to honor the person who had passed away.

There was also a dinner-on-the-grounds. Pews would be brought out of the nearby church or planks would be put between two chairs to hold the massive amounts of food that were brought by the cooks in the community. Women would cook for days leading up to the event. Everyone brought their best dishes to share with their neighbors.

It was also a day for decorating the graves in the cemetery. Since most of these Decoration Days occurred in spring, there were a variety of fresh flowers available. Flowers were gathered from the flower beds and wildflowers were picked from the fields. If there were not enough, sometimes flowers would be made out of paper mache.

Often people also decorated the graves of those who had no family there to decorate. It was important to honor all the people who had contributed to the community in the past. The flowers would stay on the graves the entire year until they were cleaned up on Cleaning Day the next year. Often, they were a soggy mess within a few days because of the spring rains.

Almost every state now celebrates the last Monday in May as Memorial Day. Some southern states still have a separate day to honor their Confederate dead but Arkansas is not one of them.

So as you celebrate the day, be sure to stop and remember those who gave their all defend and preserve our country.

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