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May 27, 2014

RONN MOTT: Decoration Day 2014

As I understand the history of Memorial Day, it began in upper New York State and the ladies of various churches putting flowers on the graves of fallen Civil War soldiers. Because it started out as a salute to Union veterans, it would be awhile before it caught on in the south. As the memory of the Civil War and the devotion of its veterans began to wane, people began to decorate the graves of their loved ones, not necessarily because of war, but family members who had passed on.

So, when I came along we were a long way from WWI and the Civil War. And in the conversations in western Indiana, the holiday was called Decoration Day.

People went about gathering live flowers and decorating the graves of their dear ones. My Aunt Doris had a string of peonies which the entire family would use to decorate the various graves. It’s hard to imagine, today, with so many beautiful plastic and other hard materials of flowers utilized in the decorating of graves. But I do remember the many tools and buckets of water and various things needed to make sure the flowers stayed fresh for the three-day weekend. It was at this time during World War II I began to notice the many soldiers’ graves at the Riverside Cemetery in Clinton where my maternal grandparents are interred. Even though Clinton was a small village of approximately 200 people during the Civil War, the headstones that most pointed out the soldiers’ service were of the Civil War. Years later, I took a walking tour and counted…and, again, there were more of those who fought in the Civil War than any other war.

I have relatives buried in Parke County, the two cemeteries in Clinton, and in various places throughout the Midwest. Our decorating is pretty much restricted to those of close family…my daughter, Laura, both parents, grandparents, Aunt Etha, and so on.

I remember a song of the ’60s recorded by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band called, “Buy for me the rain, my darlin’, buy for me the rain; tombstones are for the living, buy for me the rain.”

The rituals we have put into our lives regarding the burying of the dead go back to the days of cavemen when they put flowers over the body of the deceased, and there was a time, later, when men were buried with their horses and their chariots. And, of course, we remember the people who made a great to-do about their burials, the Egyptians. Some of those rituals have slipped in popularity as the practice of cremation became more common.

I took my cousin Juanita Mott Gross with me as we played grave decorators at various grave sites. It was a beautiful day to do this…a very old, and often pagan, ritual.

Decoration Day has other traditions, mainly the Indy 500 which had an American winner this year! Hooray for a beautiful day in the month of May!

Ronn Mott, a longtime radio personality in Terre Haute, writes commentaries for the Tribune-Star. His pieces are published online Tuesday and Thursday on, and in the print and online editions on Saturday.

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