Native Writes: Memorial Day

I can remember my first Memorial Days. My family was big on what they called “Decoration Day” and it became an all-day outing, with brushes, cloths and buckets as the grown-ups washed tombstones and cleared dead leaves on the graves of loved ones.

We also had a bountiful picnic lunch, but the grown-ups didn’t focus on it. They were remembering the people lying beneath the headstones in the cemeteries we visited.

I never met them, but I heard their stories. The only veteran among them was my great-grandfather whose starvation at Andersonville had rendered him disabled with a calcified spine. I think the folks took extra care cleaning the tall white stone that marks his grave.

He wasn’t technically a casualty of war and yet he was a wounded warrior. There were photos of him, his tribal wife and their three children, taken not long after the war ended. They lived among members of an extended family in Missouri and it appeared everyone cooperated to make life work.

Then they learned that a home for ailing and indigent Civil War veterans was being built near Monte Vista and brought their aging father to Colorado. My great-grandfather died at the Colorado State Veterans Center and I have a photo of the graveside rites.

Memorial Day itself was a response to the horrible death toll of the Civil War, in which some 620,000 soldiers on both sides died. There have been many wars since then and all the deaths are remembered.

According to, three years after the Civil War ended, on May 5, 1868, the head of an organization of Union veterans — the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) — established Decoration Day as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers. Maj. Gen. John A. Logan declared that Decoration Day should be observed on May 30.

The GAR has a dedicated plot in the Alamosa cemetery and a plaque on the wall of the American Legion honors them as its charter members.

Gen. Logan has been quoted as saying, “The 30th of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land....”

“This Memorial Day, on which we decorate their graves with the tokens of love and affection, is no idle ceremony with us, to pass away an hour; but it brings back to our minds in all their vividness the fearful conflicts of that terrible war in which they fell as victims.... Let us, then, all unite in the solemn feelings of the hour, and tender with our flowers the warmest sympathies of our souls! Let us revive our patriotism and love of country by this act and strengthen our loyalty by the example of the noble dead around us....”

While local ceremonies will be held at Homelake and Alamosa, veterans’ graves are in almost every cemetery in the San Luis Valley.

After World War I, the day was expanded to honor those who have died in all American wars and people began decorating the graves of all their departed loved ones.

As I grew older, I learned Memorial Day is a national holiday set aside to honor military service members who died fighting in a war. I also learned that Memorial Day is sometimes confused with Veterans Day. On Veterans Day, November 11, we thank and honor those who served in the military.

The living veterans conduct impressive ceremonies on Memorial Day and often celebrate even more on Veterans Day, with parades and meals, since they can get together with their comrades, family and friends. I like this day best.

In 1971, Memorial Day was declared a national holiday by an act of Congress, though it is still often called Decoration Day. It was then also placed on the last Monday in May, as were some other federal holidays.

The three-day weekend, a time many people see as the beginning of summertime activities.

While you enjoy the freedom we celebrate with family and friends this Memorial Day weekend, make the choice to incorporate the true meaning of Memorial Day in your celebration.

I was raised doing this and will continue. Remember, then enjoy the day.