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WV Decoration Day A Forgotten Tradition

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WV Decoration Day, Memorial Day Decorations

Today is Memorial Day, a federal holiday dedicated to honoring and mourning the brave U.S. military personnel who lost their lives while serving their country. In West Virginia, the public celebration of this day has a rich history, with the tradition of a Memorial Day parade in Grafton dating back to 1868. Prior to becoming a federal holiday in 1971, most West Virginians referred to this day as Decoration Day.

Reflecting on my own childhood experiences, I recall vividly the memories of Decoration Day. As a young child in the 1980s, my grandparents would take my cousin and me on what was anything but a solemn journey. We would ride in their dark red AMC Matador, visiting various cemeteries where my grandfather meticulously cleaned headstones while my grandmother adorned them with an assortment of artificial flowers. These headstones represented individuals we had only heard of in stories.

Afterward, we would gather with distant cousins and cemetery superintendents under a tree, where a table was set up to collect contributions, accompanied by a refreshing container of lemonade. Conversations would ensue for about half an hour before we would move on to the next cemetery, ending our day with a picnic lunch meticulously prepared by my grandmother, right there on the cemetery grounds.

Even at that young age, I found the whole experience somewhat peculiar. Now, in my late 40s, I find myself reflecting on these memories regularly. I reminisce about the countless family outings, the shared stories, and the conversations. As the years passed, my grandparents, father, and sister all passed away, and the task of visiting cemeteries and placing flowers on graves became my responsibility.

My grandmother had worked in the real estate department of the US Army Corps of Engineers in Huntington, a fact that she took great pride in. Both of my grandparents retired from the Corps, and I remember my grandmother’s enthusiasm for working on the East Lynn Lake project. She even successfully argued for the establishment of a specific picnic shelter near a cemetery within the department, citing the importance of “Decoration Day” as her reason.

Long before the advent of platforms like Ancestry.com, Decoration Day served as a way for families, friends, churches, and communities to come together. It was a day dedicated to cleaning cemeteries and adorning the graves of departed loved ones. This tradition has endured longer than West Virginia has been a state, and it continues to hold great significance. Many West Virginians who have moved away make the pilgrimage back to their roots, traveling hundreds of miles to participate in this heartfelt event. They come to hear singing, share a potluck supper, and hold a mini-family reunion, memorial, and worship service right there on the hallowed grounds of the graveyard.

My grandparents loaded us into their car, without seatbelts, because they believed in the importance of teaching us about our heritage. From the cousin who perished in battle to the great-great-great grandparents who tilled the very lands where we now played, it was vital to appreciate our roots. They understood that without knowledge of where we came from, we could never truly understand the possibilities of where we could go.

As I reflect on these cherished memories today, I must confess that as a 10-year-old, a picnic in a graveyard still seemed strange. However, the true peculiarity lies in how the rest of the world has shifted away from these time-honored traditions and what we have become. In an ever-changing world, abandoning these customs feels like losing a part of ourselves, and I am convinced it is not for the better.

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  • Staff Writer

    From the WV Statewide News Team. Articles depicting “Staff Writer” indicate the content was prepared by several members of the news team. View all posts

From the WV Statewide News Team. Articles depicting "Staff Writer" indicate the content was prepared by several members of the news team.

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