Monday, May 27, 2013

Observing Memorial Day

The first Decoration Day, or Memorial Day as it came to be called, was formally celebrated in 1868 when the Grand Army of the Republic designated a day of observance honoring casualties of the Civil War. The idea caught on nationally and observances gained popularity during the 1870s. On May 30, 1883, Helena celebrated its first formal observance of Decoration Day with a mile-long procession from Broadway out of the city to Benton Avenue Cemetery. Nearly 1500 people marched in the procession, including some fifty Civil War veterans and a few veterans of the war with Mexico. The Silver Coronet Band provided music. Ladies and gentlemen in carriages joined the crowd at the cemetery, bringing flowers to place on the graves of their loved ones. This observance, the Helena Daily Herald pointed out on June 2, brought to light the deplorable condition of the city's protestant and Catholic cemeteries whose wooden head and foot boards had deteriorated and could not be deciphered.

Wooden grave markers in Helena's Benton Avenue Cemetery, 2003.
Photo courtesy Ric Seabrook and Charleen Spalding. 
Few burial records were being kept. The Herald noted that the county gravedigger simply dug a hole, covered the corpse, and the name of the dead was “…buried in the same oblivion as his body.” An informal tally taken at this time revealed that only one-fourth of the graves in the city's several cemeteries even had markers. Helena was not alone in this situation. If a grave had a wooden marker, it often deteriorated quickly, and until the mid-1880s, Montana had no stone monument makers. Tombstones had to be ordered from catalogs. A. K. Prescott, Montana’s first tombstone maker, did not begin taking orders until about 1885. Unmarked graves exist in nearly every Montana community.

With the moment of national remembrance, which comes at 3:00 p.m. local time on Memorial Day, consider all those forgotten dead that lie beneath the sod in your communities.

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