Ever wonder how to interest young people in family history? Worried that your efforts will never stick? I share this story to offer hope that consistent traditions leave a lasting impact on younger generations, even if kids might seem bored at the time. I learned to love Memorial Day from my grandparents. And not for the reasons you might think. It’s not the weekend vacations, long boat rides or barbecues (well maybe the barbecues.) It’s one other big standout – the cemeteries. It’s not only the cemeteries – it’s the cemeteries with my husband, parents and my kids all in tow and the stories that have been born there. There’s nothing I love better than filling the back of my van full of fresh-cut flowers from my yard, mason jars filled with water and scissors to trim to the stems once I’m there. Priceless stories come from those visits. I thank my grandparents for all of this.
Why do I love Memorial Day and Cemeteries?
My grandparents taught me.
Growing up, Memorial Day was a big deal for my family, especially my grandma. She loved to trim her beautiful roses (my Grandpa actually did all the trimming) along with any other fresh cut flowers she could find – she often traveled to my and my parents house to grab a few – and then she would proudly place them on the graves of all her loved ones who had gone before. She would often talk about their favorite colors or favorite flowers as she instructed my grandpa, her daughters and grandkids where to place the flowers in just the right places.
A big crowd of us would gather first at the cemetery where my grandmother’s family was buried and then follow it up at the old city cemetery where my grandfather’s family was buried. That cemetery is the old city-owned cemetery and it is adorned with an old World War I memorial that was always a stop on our visit. We would talk about my Great Grandpa Hino who served in World War I, which is why he had small flag placed at his headstone each year. I always felt pride in that and now my own children feel that when we talk about it every year. As we drove to the different cemeteries we mixed and mingled in cars with family members and I loved the conversations between cemeteries.
My grandma loved talking about her brother Dee who passed when he was quite young. I could always tangibly feel her love for him as we looked at his headstone every year. I never met him, but I can picture his “coal black hair” and his style as she would lovingly talk about him every year. She passed away almost 14 years ago, but a few years before she died she made me promise to visit her grave each Memorial Day. She said to me: “I know you will always visit my grave because this is our tradition. I trust you to keep doing it when I die.” I kept the promise. But I wasn’t the only one. Every Memorial Day my parents, aunts, uncles and cousins gather at all the cemeteries and overload the graves with flowers, mostly from our own yards, just like Grandma taught us. It is always touching to see every year and always a great reunion to see my extended family there every year. We all feel the calling to honor my grandma’s request! My grandma wasn’t one to mince words and she wasn’t one to take no for an answer. But it was a simple request to me. I even planted Peace roses, my grandma’s favorite and mine too, so I can put them on her grave every year. I think they are my favorite because they exude her in my memory. I told my daughters all about that this year. Now when we walk by and smell them, they know that great grandma loved them too. The memories I made with her visiting those graves and the stories she told, are forever in my heart and I want my children to feel the same way.
This love of cemeteries came from my paternal grandparents too. They live in Texas and while I was never there on Memorial day, we visited each summer. On one of the days of our visit, we took an annual trip to the cemetery which my grandpa referred to it as, “the cemetery workin.'” We made of day of it, visiting the little old east Texas town where my grandparents grew up, met and fell in love and then landing at the old cemetery in middle of nowhere. There weren’t many trees and it was hotter than I can even describe – and we worked. I probably didn’t seem very interested as raked, pulled weeds and I often meandered around, looking at names and dates on the headstones, trying to imagine the people who belonged to those names. It had an impact on me, though, and I especially remembered most my dad’s littlest brother who died as a baby and had a tiny headstone. My grandparents showed me how to lovingly care for the resting place of our family that went before. It was also a labor of love for my dad, who always got attacked by loads of chiggers every year at the “workin” no matter how much bug spray he applied.
The stories that emerge.
My husband is a huge family history buff. He’s great with the dates and finding facts about our ancestors lives. He and I love telling family stories (read more about that here), and one of the most natural places to tell the stories is at the cemetery with the name and dates and tributes. My children will often find namesakes there, see the small American flags that adorn veteran’s graves and the stories spill out. Just last year I told my 5-year-old all about my Grandma Kap and how she came to America on a boat from Holland and her many adventures. Her mother threw away bananas a kind stranger gave to them on Ellis Island because she had never seen the fruit. My daughter loved that story! So now, nearly every time we pass that cemetery we talk about my “old grandma.” My children didn’t know my grandparents well, but those of them that did often tell some stories while at their grave sites. We also often meet up with other extended family and talk about them as we gather around. One of my uncles usually cleans the space and we laugh about how happy Grandma would be that he was doing so. Visiting the graves often inspires me to come home and write some of those thoughts down, too.
It just feels good.
There is a certain feeling of peace that comes with visiting a cemetery. Some say they are creepy, but I find them to be just the opposite. There is a mood of sacredness, of spirituality that seems tangible to me. I have also made some discoveries about myself there. I remember the year when I realized that I had stopped feeling completely sad that my grandparents had died, and had finally moved to the stage of happy, sweet memories when I thought of them. It still feels pretty painful to visit my aunt and uncle’s grave who died much too soon in a tragic car accident, but I love going there and remembering them and talking about them with my kids. They doted on my children and I love to tell them about their love. I adored them, and it feels good to have a chance to voice that to everyone around me. As hard as it is to say goodbye to someone in this life, there is a peace at the cemetery of memories of love shared there from the burial service.
The last time I visited my family cemetery in Texas was just over two decades ago – the first time I visited since my grandma had passed a few years before. I was there with my dad and the two of us openly wept at the site of her grave. Tears of grief, tears of joy and tears of love. Because that’s really what cemeteries are, right? Places to grieve, places to love, places to remember. This summer I will be taking my own children back to that old cemetery and I can hardly wait for them to experience these traditions, seriously.
I would really encourage you to explore your family stories at the cemetery this Memorial Day Weekend. Follow it up with a fabulous barbecue (don’t forget the S’mores) and share some stories – record them and write them down. Priceless memories are sure to follow.
Here is one final tip to make the most of your cemetery experience:
Record the stories!
Have you ever wished you had paid better attention when your parents or grandparents told stories? This year, I urge you to invest in a digital recorder to keep in your pocket or purse to turn on when the stories begin. You can use an app on your phone too. Here is a reasonably priced recorder that I use all the time and love! If you’re concerned about audio quality, you might want to invest in a lapel microphone with a fuzzy windscreen to reduce sputtering noise from wind outside.
You can get both here:
If you like to do your homework, here are reviews of recording devices.
But seriously, if you want to save time, I love, love love, both the Sony and the Olympus models linked above.
If free is more your style, use a free recorder app on your phone or tablet:
Click here to read my review of free recorder apps. (Drawback, most phones don’t have an audio input jack, so you will be unable to connect an external microphone with windscreen. this means some noise interference from wind. But…some audio is much better than none!):
Not sure how to do an oral history? Get our free tutorial that walks you through how to use recorders, save files, and what questions to ask! Click on the photo below for the interview tutorial printable.
Rachel J. Trotter is a writer at Evalogue.Life, where we tell personal and family stories that inspire, and help you tell yours. She has worked as a writer since her college days over 20 years ago. She loves telling people’s stories. She lives in Ogden, Utah and is busy raising six children and loves working on family history alongside her husband, Mat.
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