By Randy Townzen
The beginnings of Memorial Day can be traced in many directions and to many locations. No matter where it began, for almost 150 years this American Holiday has honored the sacrifice of those who gave their lives in service to our country.
Simply known as "Decoration Day", originally the end of May was set aside to commemorate those soldiers who lost their lives in the Civil War. After the United States entered World War I, the tradition was extended to include all military killed in all wars. In 1971, at the height of the Viet Nam War, the holiday was recognized nation wide as an official day of remembrance. Originally celebrated on May 30th, the date was changed to the last Monday in May to allow a three day holiday for federal employees.
For Bentonville citizens and most of the area's early settlers, "Decoration Day" was a deep family tradition. Most families had a close relative lost to one of the many wars and conflicts. The month of May would be alive with the color and smell of wild flowers and blossoms from trees and gardens. The beauty of these bouquets was a joyful celebration of a new season, and placing them on a grave was a show of respect and gratitude through remembrance.
Since artificial flowers were not available or far too expensive, fresh flowers would need to be cut and placed on graves the same day to look their best. This meant parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles and cousins would travel far and wide to the many cemeteries, with what flowers they grew or gathered, and meet to renew family friendships. Passing from tombstone to tombstone they would decorate and exchange stories and memories. This was an especially important education for the younger family members. Learning their ancestry and hearing unique stories helped to form family bonds and pride in community and country.
Tombstones were a wealth of knowledge, and for children a contest to find the oldest dates. Any interested person could trace a generation of their family or community hit hard by conflict, accident or disease, such as the Spanish Flu epidemic after World War I, the tuberculosis outbreak of the 1930's and Polio of the 1940's and 50's. They could count the Veterans and learn the dates of different wars and conflicts. They could compare the styles of tombstones, from the hand carved marble of the 1800's to the sandblasted granite of today. They could distinguish the poor from the rich, and come to understand that all are equal in this place.
It was common for families to pack a picnic lunch or dinner and spend the whole day at the cemetery, and more and more the decorations of flowers extended to all who were loved and missed, not just the soldiers.
Today's tradition of cookouts and celebration of the summer season on Memorial Day is a direct connection to these early family gatherings for "Decoration Day". I think our ancestors would approve... but when you look forward to this holiday's cookout, please remember to look back with a little thanks and remembrance.