Memorial Day is a day of remembrance, an opportunity to pause and appreciate the sacrifices of those that gave their lives in the service of our country. This holiday, originally called Decoration Day, was created after the Civil War to honor fallen Union soldiers. Today tiny flags and flowers will adorn cemeteries across the nation to commemorate all Americans that perished while serving in the Armed Forces.
Memorial Day is an important event in my family – a day when everyone gathers together to clean, care for and decorate the graves of our ancestors. All of our relatives’ headstones receive bouquets not just the veterans’, but the largest most beautiful bouquet always graces the grave of my maternal grandfather, a veteran of the Korean War. My grandmother saves coffee cans all year-long and we cover them in aluminum foil to make simple, practical and most importantly, unbreakable vessels for the bouquets. After adding some rocks to weigh them down, we fill them with water and a simple but festive arrangement of rhododendrons, irises, snow balls, lilacs or any other flower that is blooming in late May. Having one day a year set aside for this loving task makes it easy to gather plenty of helping hands.
If you would like to add this tradition to your Memorial Day activities, The Association of Gravestone Studies gives detailed instruction for how to care for and preserve monuments based on their material (granite, marble, limestone or sandstone). When I was growing up we used regular household cleaners and scrub brushes on headstones but we now take a much more gentle approach and use only water and plastic bristle brushes to do the job. The handiest tool I’ve found to date is an old toothbrush! Annual cleaning and care will keep lichen from taking a foothold and help to preserve headstones for centuries to come.
If you need help locating the headstones of your ancestors there are two extremely helpful resources that may guide you to the right location. A popular site among genealogists is Findagrave.com, a massive database of headstone transcriptions that contains over 80 million burial listings. Many of the listed graves have been photographed and some come with links to other relatives buried nearby.
Another resource is Billiongraves.com. This service allows a volunteer to snap a photo of a headstone with their smartphone and upload it directly to their website. The exact GPS location of the grave is then saved from the photo file and the data on the photograph is transcribed and made available in a searchable index. If you are lucky enough to find your ancestor on this site, you will be able to view the photograph of their headstone (handy when you are trying to find it in the sea of graves at the cemetery) as well as the exact location coordinates.
If you are far from home this Memorial Day, consider stopping by a local cemetery and caring for a headstone that has been forgotten, or contributing to a site like Billiongraves.com or Findagrave.com to help other families locate graves. Small generous acts like these can help make this Memorial Day special and maybe add a little psychic fulfillment to go along with the hotdogs and bargain hunting.