OPINION: Did established memorials for family and friends die with the term Decoration Day?

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on email

Back in 1950, which is the writer’s earliest memory of the holiday that is now widely called Memorial Day, there was an atmosphere of excitement, but deep reverence in the Phillips household, as they began the observation of what they knew as Decoration Day. The writer, along with his brother and his mother, walked a mile and a half to Riverton Cemetery. The other members of the family were left at home to care for the matriarch, Blanch, who was 80 and blind and Dad, the patriarch, who was near 89 and not in good health. 

Once at the cemetery, they spent about 30 minutes locating the gravesite of Doris Ann Phillips, chopping down the weeds that had grown up and planting flowers on the grave. Doris’ grave was easy to find since it was near the highway side of the otherwise overgrown cemetery. Momma, Mrs. Phillips, had engaged her two sons to go with her to “decorate” the grave since it was Decoration Day. Some other families were doing the same since it was generally understood that Decoration Day was a time when people paid their respect to their deceased friends and family members.

As Sonny Boy Williamson’s song testifies, it was more often called Decoration Day than Memorial Day. It was also clear that the day was one devoted to family and friends, not just fallen soldiers as is the case today. In his popular song, Decoration Day, Sonny Boy says, “Lord, I had a woman, she was kind and lovin’ in every way; but the little girl died and left me. I have the blues on every Decoration Day. Lord, I hated to see her leave me, because these are the last words my baby had to say. Lord, I hate to see her leave me because these are the last words my baby had to say. She told me to bring her some flowers on every Decoration Day. So sorry to leave you, I just hate to see the good Lord take her away; so sorry to leave you, but I know the good Lord must take her away; but I always will remember and I won’t forget Decoration Day.” 

 Such were the observances at that time, at least in west Bolivar County and Rosedale, Mississippi. With the other time off from work, people had picnics and cookouts. Some went to the movie theater or to the horse races. The biggest emphasis, however, was on “decorating” the graves.

If, as seems to be the trend, Decoration Day and remembering deceased family and friends is replaced by merely remembering soldiers killed in combat, the community will become the loser. In addition to Memorial Day, Armed Forces Day and Veterans Day are times when soldiers can be remembered. There is, however, no other day to remember deceased family, friends in the community.

It’s not that there should be a competition between family and friends and fallen soldiers, between the community and the military, for there is room for all. The writer, for one, merely desires the retention of having a recognized time to “decorate” the gravesites of loved ones as well as “salute” those who lost their lives in a war in which America engaged.

Republish This Story

Copy and Paste the below text.

OPINION: Did established memorials for family and friends die with the term Decoration Day?

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
June 3, 2024