A Cemetery Caretaker's Advice to Millennials on Memorial Day

advice american history civic service generational gap generational intelligence grief memorial day millennials parenting rememberance self-sacrifice traditions May 23, 2019
Since 2016, my husband and I have been caretakers of a cemetery.  It isn’t the usual part-time job that someone our age would take. As the Memorial Day holiday approaches we are asked regularly what our plans are for the weekend. We look at our schedule for where our children need to be due to their commitments of activities, aka teenagers. As a caretaker of a cemetery, it’s clear that for the majority of Millennials (1985-1995) and their children, Centennials (1996-2010) Memorial Day isn’t about visiting those who were lost.  I’m not saying that none of them do but if you head to your closest cemetery on Monday, there will be more shades of grey than others walking the tombstones. I don’t say this to condemn, actually I wanted to write this post to encourage grace towards Millennials this holiday, and inspire us all to see where Memorial Day is a holiday tradition future generations desperately need us to recognize.
Chances are if you’re a member of the GenX generation or prior, Memorial Day is a day spent visiting cemeteries to show respect for family members or friends, some of which you may not have even know yourself. For the Baby Boomers and prior, the wearing of red or a pinned poppy flower on a blazer, a town parade where you could wear white for the first time, and possibly a few hot dogs at a family picnic afterward where people complained about businesses commercializing the holiday is possibly how the day transpires.   

I remember my grandmother and her sister, wearing matching red blazers with poppies pinned to them, and taking me to visit a cemetery with them every Memorial Day.  I don’t remember who it was they were visiting but it was the tradition. They would decorate themselves to the nines and would encourage me to stand still, be quiet, and show respect while we attended the ceremony and parade afterward.  It was a holiday that had very personal connections for their generation, World War II took friends and family and then Vietnam took children of friends and family. They were deeply touched and deeply understood the weight of the sacrifice of wars where many were not only volunteers but drafted.  This is something as a grandchild I didn’t comprehend, something, that I’m sure, they hoped I would never fully understand. Something I am grateful, I haven’t had to come to terms with understanding fully either as an adult. For our grandparents’ and parents’ generation, wars were a big part of their lives, less publicity, and more personal experience. Ways to move forward from the effects of war and what was sacrificed were important parts of grieving as a nation, not only as an individual. Although the origins of Memorial Day started back after the Civil War, the adoption of Decoration Day, the formal national holiday of Memorial Day in 1971 was an important part of moving forward but not forgetting the sacrifice of everyone who was lost due to their service to our country.  It was also the formal start of commercialization of the holiday.

As cemetery caretakers each Memorial Day when the flags are placed and memorial plaques or medallions are installed, it reminds my husband and I of those moments we were taught to stand still, be quiet, and show respect with our grandparents. I realized after I asked my Centennial kids if they felt a connection to Memorial Day, that they weren’t connected to the holiday in that deeply still, quiet, respectful way. It felt almost condemning to hear them say the didn’t feel a connection to Memorial Day at all, other than a hot dog or a camping trip we had taken.  What type of parent am I?! It was also heartwarming, if I’m honest, that my children haven’t been deeply affected by war because my husband an I weren’t personally affected by loss during the wars of our generation. I questioned myself for a moment and ask if that’s allowed to be a good thing, right? That’s what those men and women who’ve been lost fought for right? For children in this land to be free of the burden of war.

I dived into this thought more, because it bothered me. I thought about how important the lessons that our grandparents taught us, during Memorial Day, were more specifically about civic duty and what it meant to belong to a nation that served together in very real ways.  Lessons I wasn’t sure I had showcased in my own life and lessons I thought I had been parenting. Lessons that probably, for the most part, many Millennials didn’t witness or participate in unless they had been or are a part of a military service organization or maybe being raised by a grandparent like we were.  It made me think, how can these important lessons be continued by my generation without that deep connection to the effects of loss from war. How can we teach the sacrifices of what war encourages morally in a generation, if they have no personal experience with it?

I don’t have the answers really, but I felt this was a topic that needed to be discussed.  I guess that was my answer, to talk about it. I put together two ways that I will be creating what I believe will be a meaningful representation of those lessons this Memorial Day that I have not done in the past.  I hope to encourage my generation to learn more about how they can make a connection to Memorial Day for themselves and their families. I also want to inspire generations that may feel Millennials are disrespectful towards Memorial Day to give them grace.  Those lives were not lost in vain, their sacrifice mattered to ensure we were free.

Planting of Poppies

  • Over the weekend of Memorial Day, as caregivers of a cemetery, we will see so many floral arrangements placed it’s hard to not see the beauty in loss and mourning. When I see it, I remember how important flowers were a sign of remembrance for my grandmother and her sister.  As a Xennial, I also feel it’s an unnecessary piece of consumerism that plays on that connection. So if, like me, you do not have a personal connection to a lost service member or believe it is a holiday that plays on commercialization consider planting a few flowers instead.  
  • I plan to plant a few poppy seeds some place in our yard or in a porch pot with my children. Poppies have an important representation for Memorial Day. You can purchase poppy seeds at your local Lowes or seed shop, they are primarily perennials and this is the perfect time of year to plant them.  They will reseed themselves and come back every year. It might not be the publically outward moment of stillness, quiet and respect prior generations are used to but it could be just the disturbance our generation needs to show this holiday to reconnect to it ourselves and see it bloom once again to a holiday with meaning for our children as well.

Encouraging Civics Education

  • While caring for the cemetery, there's been a fair amount of it for my husband and I that has nothing to do with our religious practices and more about what we believe can be of service to our community. For us, and I know for many Millennials civics education wasn’t focused very much for us in school. At least for me, the majority of where I learned civics was in scouts and being a part of groups where there was a democracy as the setup, like student council.  With a decline in scouting in our country and no continual civics curriculum in most public schools from elementary to high school, this is a conversation we’ll be having with our kids this Memorial Day. I remember being enamored with a friend of my grandmothers who was a member of the Civil Conservation Corps. Memorial Day is about remembering the sacrifices of service, those lost because they said yes to serving us in the most self-sacrificial way. We live in a time where that type of service isn’t starkly necessary. Where can we as a generation start to encourage service other than the typical route of the military?  
  • I am so thankful that the church’s cemetery committee didn’t look at us Xennials and say, “they are too young” or “irresponsible” to care for this like we hope they will. They saw our willingness to serve and respect the importance of what we were saying we would care for publically. This weekend we’ll be talking with our children more about where they want to serve our community, country, and world. Starting the conversation of public service is one I believe we need if we don’t want to lose the importance of respecting those we have lost providing the ultimate sacrifice of service in our armed forces.

If you have ways you’ve made traditions in your household to celebrate Memorial Day, please share in the comments. My personal belief is Memorial Day is a holiday where it’s origins are being forgotten both because of disconnection in generations and due to lack of civics education. We all have the self-sacrificing power to offer our service this Memorial Day by taking the time to stop and be still to respect those who lost their lives because they believed that serving others was a part of our moral compass as a nation. I’ll be searching through some old pictures to find those twin red blazers, sharing a few important conversations with my kids, and enjoying the serenity of a cemetery neatly pruned to honor those we’ve lost who’ve made the ultimate sacrifice. Please feel free to share your personal Memorial Day stories, perspectives, and life lessons you’ve learned by recognizing Memorial Day.
And one last thing, be kind to your cemetery caretaker.