Friday, May 28, 2010

Decoration Day

Thoughts from last year... This is Memorial Day weekend. My daughter is two years out of high school, but I've fond memories of her participation, as a member of the high school band, in the Copley, OH Memorial Day parade each year. The parade ended at the Copley Cemetery and its impressive veterans' monument. The cemetery was bright with flowers and American flags. In my hometown, Vandalia, Illinois, the "avenue of flags" is a striking reminder of veterans' service.

When I was a kid, the holiday was always “Decoration Day.” We picked up Grandma at her old farmhouse then backtracked on Route 185 to the turn off to the Pilcher Cemetery. I was told that one ancestor, Winslow Pilcher, had owned the land first but that another ancestor, Josiah Williams, formally deeded the property as a cemetery. The graveyard was located in a bright meadow surrounded by thick timber. A single massive oak stood in the clearing. We saw no houses and heard nothing except sounds of nature, our own voices, and the slam of the trunk as the grown-ups removed the “decorations” and then placed the flowers on the grave of my grandmother and other relatives.

My grandfather’s red granite stone read, CRAWFORD Josiah 1886-1954 Grace 1890- . To each side of the stone are the graves of my great-grandparents, John and Susan Crawford and Albert and Abbie Pilcher. Grandma and my parents decorated these graves. I was usually more interested in the older section of the cemetery. A new stone, so plain and solid, seemed less interesting to me than an old, leaning marker which carefully tallied the person’s exact age at time of death and contained odd names like Comfort, Alonzo, Mortimer, Elvina, Reuben, Ulysses, Tabitha, Jahiel, and Eudoxy. A few of the old stones had fatalistic inscriptions, like the epitaph of Moses Cluxton, Sr.:

Remember, friends, as you pass by,
As you are now, so once was I.
As I am now, so you must be.
Prepare for death, and follow me.

Others had more explicit promise of Heaven:

The rose may fade, the body die,
But flowers unmarked bloom on high
Beyond the land of sinful powers
Our son is safe in Eden’s bowers.

The stones had extremes of brevity and wordiness, from the most basic inscription (“J A T 1835”) to a hymn carved upon my great-great-great-uncle David Washburn’s stone:

When Jesus comes to reward his servants
Whether it be noon or night
Faithful to him will he find us watching
With our lamps all trimmed and bright
Chorus [sic!]
O can we say we are ready Brother
Ready for the soul’s bright home
Say will he find you and me still watching
Waiting waiting when the Lord shall come.

The cemetery was a place of lonely peacefulness. Each year, the adults interrupted that peace with remarks about the peacefulness, about how long that tree must have been growing there, about how badly Cousin So and so misses his wife (who’s buried over there) when we last saw him at the grocery, about why Cousin Such and such hasn’t been out with flowers because she’s usually decorated by now, about how old Grandpa would’ve been (“196- minus 1886 is ___ so he’d be ___”). Sometimes we’d arrive in time for a trustee’s meeting beneath the oak and the grownups would talk about how much mowing costs had been last year, what kid was going to be around this summer who could be counted on to do trimming and … on and on. Mourning doves made their haunting call.

We weren’t the only “decorators” of course. Someone usually placed flags on the graves of veterans. Two were Civil War veterans (one a casualty at Vicksburg according to his stone). Josiah Williams was a Mexican War veteran. On the east side of the meadow, a small flag decorated a plain rock. “So and so knew who that soldier was,” a cousin told us wistfully—“so and so” being another cousin who had long since passed away.

My mother is very elderly and in a nursing home. She wonders who is decorating at the cemetery. Albert and Abby Pilcher had only one child, and so they’ve not many descendants in the area. With such mundane things as a bouquet of artificial flowers or a $1 American flag, we could show departed loved ones that we still cared and remembered. Decorating was no casual thing.

Here are my relatives buried in Fayette County, IL who were war veterans. Off the top of my head:

My dad, buried in the South Hill Cemetery in Vandalia, in World War II.
My great-uncle Ed Strobel, buried in the Ramsey Cemetery, in World War I.
My great-great-grandfather George Washburn, buried in the Bolt Cemetery near Ramsey, in the Civil War.
My great-grandfather John Strobel, buried in the Ramsey Cemetery, in the Civil War.
My great-great-grandfather Josiah Williams, buried in the Pilcher Cemetery near Brownstown, in the Mexican War.
My great-great-great-grandfather Winslow Pilcher, buried in the Winslow Pilcher Family Cemetery near Brownstown, in the War of 1812.
My great-great-great-great-grandfather James S. Carson, buried in an unknown location in Fayette County, in the Revolutionary War. His name appears on the bicentennial monument, honoring him and other Revolutionary veterans, at the Fayette County Courthouse.

I'm leaving out other uncles and cousins on both sides. John A. Wakefield, an early Fayette County pioneer who married my great-great-great-great-grandfather Henry Brown's niece, led troops in the tragic Black Hawk War of 1832 and wrote an 1834 history of that conflict. He's buried in Kansas.

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