My grandmother had survived the death of a child and during my childhood, every year in May, I would ride with her to the cemetery for a community event known of as Decoration Day. Decoration Day generally coincided with Mother’s Day in our community and never had a set date. Even without a hard date, the ritual remained the same year after year.
At the small cemetery where my uncle was buried, a small folding table sat by the driveway. A plain tablecloth covered it and flowers were placed around the edges. A large jar was centered on the table with a slit cut in the top. Usually, when we arrived at mid-day, the jar would be about half full of coins and bills. I remember seeing a full range of denominations from pennies up to larger bills folded and dropped into the jar. My grandmother never placed cash in the jar. She always took a folded check from her purse and, with shaking hands, slid it through the lid to fall in with the other donations.
Once my grandmother had made her offering and spent a few minutes speaking with the man at the table (he always knew her by name), we would go together to the front row steps and climb them to the top of the small hill. The grave we visited was just a few feet from the steps and was marked with a flat headstone bearing my uncle’s name. My grandmother would kneel down and sit quietly for a few minutes before beginning to remove old, faded decorations and replacing them with a fresh bouquet that she had brought from the car. Sometimes, she would place a small figurine or other bauble. This part was never the same. She brought what her heart felt she should bring and didn’t worry about judgment.
After a time spent in quiet bereavement, she would stand up, wipe a tear from the corner of her eye and hold her hand out to me. We would make our way down the steps and back to the car. Pausing only long enough to bid farewell to the caretaker at the table and to place the faded decorations in the collection bin carefully hidden behind the table. We would sit in the car for a few minutes watching the other visitors go through the same motions before my grandmother would start the car and head slowly down the tree lined lane back towards the road that would take us home.
Decoration Day was an informal event held by the community. All of the donations placed in the jar were used to pay the upkeep expenses for the local cemetery such as mowing and decoration removal. The funds also purchased flags to be placed by the Cub Scout packs on Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day. It was a shared day of mourning for those touched by loss within the community. It eased the burden of stress, anxiety, and bereavement during the weeks before and after Mother’s Day. Not a single person faced the cemetery alone.
Decoration Day is a fading tradition as globalization has created the opportunity for families to spread out. Communities no longer have the same cohesion where one life was so deeply intertwined with the rest of the population. As a result, support groups that used to be inherently found within the community have faded into near obscurity. This evolution has created an even greater need for outside support during times of stress, anxiety, depression, and bereavement.
While I am sad to see the community fade, other types of communities are forming. Online communities founded on similar situations and circumstances are beginning to blossom. One only has to type in support group on a search engine to find a like-minded community. In my grandmother’s case, a search for ‘grief support groups’ netted about 25 million hits and was sorted by location. In addition, while community support was crucial to my grandmother overcoming her grief, topic specific support groups have the potential to be even more beneficial as each member can personally relate.
As for me, online support groups have their place but I still miss the community gatherings. I fondly remember the days of cooking and visiting with community members. And while I treasure my ‘virtual friends’, I miss the fellowship of face-to-face contact. On Mother’s Day Sunday, you will find me tending to my family and making my donation at that same covered table.