A tradition of faith: Memorial Day and our Catholic Cemeteries

While summer doesn't officially start until June 20, families everywhere unofficially celebrate Memorial Day weekend as the unofficial start to summer with the first picnics and barbeques of the year. For many others, however, Catholics included, Memorial Day weekend remains true to its intended purpose -- to honor men and women who died while serving this country in the U.S. military.

The roots of Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, are planted in the mid-1800s and in our country's cemeteries. The Civil War saw more casualties than any other conflict in U.S. history, requiring the government to create our country's first national cemeteries. By the late 1860s, Americans in various towns had begun holding springtime tributes to these fallen soldiers and decorating their graves with flowers and reciting graveside prayers. While no one is 100 percent sure where this tradition started, in 1966, the federal government declared Waterloo, New York, the official birthplace of Memorial Day. Waterloo, which had been celebrating this day since 1866, was chosen due to its annual, community-wide celebration, which included the decorating of soldier's graves and the closing of local businesses so that everyone could participate. For decades, Memorial Day continued to be observed on May 30, but, in 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which established Memorial Day as the last Monday in May to create a three-day weekend for federal employees; the change went into effect in 1971.

Here, in the Archdiocese of Boston, the customs that started back in the 1860s are still holding steadfast to this day. Memorial Day weekend and the warmer days leading up to it see an exponential increase in visitors to the many Catholic cemeteries across our region. During the cold and snowy winter months, attendance and traffic in our Catholic cemeteries comes to a crawl, but there is a tremendous upswing in visitors as soon as Memorial Day starts to draw near and the weather starts turning. In late April and early May, families can be seen trimming grass around graves, cleaning headstones, placing flags, planting flowers, and saying prayers. Staff members at the archdiocesan cemeteries can be found diligently installing official veterans' markers that have arrived at the last minute.

Our local Catholic families have extended this tradition beyond honoring just those who served our country. Memorial Day weekend has become a focused time to come visit and attend to the graves of all family members. Many families can be found going from gravesite to gravesite, visiting generation upon generation of family members who may be resting at these larger cemeteries. It is not uncommon to find a visitor relaxing, prayerfully reflecting and reminiscing in a lawn chair for a few hours at the grave of a loved one.

It is not just the singular family unit who participates in celebrating Memorial Day either. The Catholic Cemetery Association of the Archdiocese of Boston partners with and supports the local parishes in honoring this special day. At Holy Cross Cemetery and Mausoleum in Malden, the archdiocese's largest Catholic cemetery with nearly 750,000 people interred, official Memorial Day tributes always start early. For many years prior to COVID, special Masses were held around Memorial Day in our cemetery Mausoleums. Special salutes to the veterans have been incorporated into the Mass and the tribute of "Taps" in honor of those who have made the supreme sacrifice for our country. As we move forward in time, hopefully putting the concerns of viral transmission behind us, we look forward to holding these events again.

Much of the staff from the Catholic Cemetery Association of the Archdiocese of Boston spend the entire three-day weekend working and canvassing the various cemeteries. Staff members can be found distributing flags, helping families find a grave location, distributing pre-planning information, and even assisting families with the planting and watering of flowers.

While many holidays can lose their original meaning or see that meaning distorted throughout the years, it is refreshing to see the Catholic faithful of the Archdiocese of Boston hold this Holiday true to their hearts.

For assistance in our cemeteries, our main phone is 781-322-6300 or you can visit us at www.ccemetery.org.