Remembering the dead

MarigoldsBy the time the Civil War ended in 1865, the United States had sustained severe casualties, with the total number of dead soldiers estimated at 620,000.

It has been our deadliest war, pitting family members against each other with industrialized weapons and still relatively primitive medical care. By the time it was over, the South was in tatters and even the North was changed forever.

How could the nation heal, and how could people make a transition from actively attempting to kill each other to forgiveness?

Many communities claim to have started Memorial Day, some in the South and some in the North, but the first large observance of the tradition was in Arlington National Cemetery, on May 30, 1868. According to the U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs, the date was probably chosen because flowers would be in bloom everywhere in the country.

It was not Memorial Day, however, but Decoration Day, a day to decorate soldiers’ graves with flowers. On that day in May in 1868, children and veterans decorated the graves of all veterans — Union and Confederate alike.

By then, other cities had already begun to give tribute to their dead, with flowers. The celebration on May 30 spread, and after World War I, it was expanded to include those who died in all American wars.

Mourning has changed since Decoration Day began. Death hovered nearer in the Victorian era, and mourning had external manifestations that have since disappeared. Most of these mourning rituals concerned the adoption of black in one way or another.

For a spouse’s death, women wore black, with veils, for months or years, and then purple and gray when their time in black was through. Men wore black sRosemaryuits, black gloves and even, if possible, black cuff-buttons. Homes were decorated in black, with a black ribbon on the doorknob or bell — a signal visitors should attempt to enter quietly and respectfully.

People in mourning even used black-bordered stationery for personal correspondence.

But then there were the flowers. Marigolds were for sorrow, and rosemary was for remembrance. Purple hyacinth meant sorrow too, and a deep red carnation meant “Alas!”

The flowers were not black, but came in many colors with many meanings attached, brightly-colored tokens of love and remembrance for the fallen on Decoration Day.

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