By Friday morning the dandelions had started to look a little ragged even here in the hills of Lincoln, where spring comes late. But they were still a first-rate option to drop on a grave if you were 6 or 7 years old and wanted to show your respect for the dead. The kids found them as they walked from the Lincoln Elementary School on the far east side of the village to the cemetery on the far west.
It’s a tradition. Every year on the Friday before Memorial Day, the entire school — all six grades and the kindergarten — walk together down East River Road and up Quaker Street to the graveyard. Including the teachers and administrators and a couple of parents, this year there were about 140 people.
The teachers had explained why everyone was taking time off from math or spelling that morning to visit the cemetery. The kids knew the holiday was important enough that they wouldn’t be going to school Monday, and they understood that the day has a gravity that transcends the first barbecue of the summer. After all, on Monday there will also be a small parade not far from their homes. But still it remains one of those mystifying days off from the classroom that doesn’t come with presents.
And, of course, Friday they all went to the cemetery. That’s serious.
Their teachers may also have told them how Memorial Day originally was called Decoration Day. Its origins go back to the Civil War. In 1868, three years after the conflict had ended, General John Logan, commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, wanted a day to remember the soldiers who had died putting down what he termed the rebellion: “The 30th day of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet church-yard in the land.”
Even though the Civil War seems like ancient history (Though doesn’t that Wolverine superhero figure somewhere in the struggle?), the Lincoln cemetery still has a few poles in the ground with rusted metal stars with the letters G.A.R. upon them. G.A.R. stands for Grand Army of the Republic. Finding one of those stars always gives a child enormous satisfaction, because it means that he or she has just discovered the gravesite of a Civil War veteran.
Still, as they walked among the tombstones the meaning of Memorial Day became tangible — or at least as tangible as a day about something as intangible as memory can be. Sure, it was a holiday that began as a way to pay tribute to soldiers who died nearly a century and a half ago, but sadly there have been soldiers who have died in an awful lot of wars ever since. Some of them are buried in this cemetery, too.
One time I watched a few of the young students stand solemnly before the marker for a first lieutenant in an air cavalry division who died on a sweltering July day in 1968 while leading a patrol in Vietnam. A few minutes later they were inhaling the aroma of the freshly cut grass as they paused before another marker, this one with a name that is common in Lincoln but not someone they ever knew. My sense in both cases is that the students were moved because — and here is something they hadn’t expected and rarely know how to put into words — they felt a connection. That’s the thing about cemeteries and about this Lincoln tradition.
Over the years I have seen these kids carefully place their small bouquets of dandelions on the graves and every year — at just that moment — the world around them seems to grow quiet.
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on May 24, 2009.)