The Local History of Memorial Day

May 30, 2010 by  
Filed under Columnists

Memorial Day was originally known as “Decoration Day,” a time to decorate the graves of soldiers. In 1871 Ypsilanti, the holiday hadn’t yet caught on. The editor of the Ypsilanti Commercial bemoaned the poor turnout to date.

“The day for decorating soldiers’ graves comes next Tuesday, May 30th,” said Commercial editor C. R. Pattison. “It seems a pity that our citizens have been so derelict in observing this day. Have we no soldiers’ graves in our cemeteries?”

The paper continued, “The men, who in their country’s peril, when treason sought to overthrow the government and blot out human liberty forsook their peaceful avocations and buckled on the armor and far away from home and friend, some on the battle field, some in dark and loathsome dungeons died that their country might live and its invaluable institutions be handed down to their children . . . “

He continued, “Though there be no public decoration in Ypsilanti, individuals including the loving mother, the fond sister, the desolate widow, and even families who have lost dear ones will doubtless wend their sad way to our cemeteries and shed the mournful tear and strew the grave with flowers, the emblem of an unfading future.”

By 1883, Decoration Day had evolved into an event that featured speakers. The May 26, 1883 Ypsilanti Commercial headlines announced, “Decoration Day! Wednesday Next, May 30th. Eloquent Speakers Provided. The day will be observed in a manner that will do worthy honor to the martyred dead.”

A follow-up article in the June 2, 1883 Commercial said, “Decoration Day is one of the best features of life in the United States. Because flowers are so fair and perishable they are the tenderest offering to both the living and the dead.”

The paper continued, “At the time when the garden is covered with sweet spring blossoms, and flowers are everywhere plentiful, it is delightful to see them distributed over the mounds to simply say, ‘You are not forgotten.’ It is to be hoped the custom of marking one day memorable with flowers will never die, but will flourish as a faithful reminder of those whose heroic deeds should be sweetly and touchingly remembered.”

By 1891, the day was memorialized in town with a program and parade. The May 28, 1891 Ypsilanti Commercial laid out the plan for the day.

“The 30th of May, dedicated to the memory of the soldier dead and the decoration of their graves with flowers, occurs this year on Saturday. Carpenter Post, G. A. R., and their Auxiliary Relief Corps, will hold their usual observance of the day, and invite all citizens without distinction to unite with them in the beautiful and appropriate ceremonies that have been instituted to perpetuate the patriotic memories of the war.”

“The Post and military will form on Congress Street at 1:30 p.m. and march to the Methodist church, where exercises will be had as follows:” A brief outline of music, prayer, and speeches followed. “Procession will then form and march to Highland Cemetery. . . At the Cemetery, services in accordance with the Ritual will be had, and Miss Carrie Hardy will read a poem.”

Today Memorial Day is a big event in town with a long parade leading to Highland Cemetery and the public honoring of war dead. It is a holiday mingling sadness with patriotism. And it all started with the long-ago custom of leaving spring flowers, soon to wilt and brown–unlike the memories of those left behind–on the graves of soldiers.

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