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Honoring Memorial Day

Gettysburg Address

During the early days of the Civil War, it became apparent that there was a need to identify and develop space for cemeteries to honor those who fought for their country and gave the ultimate sacrifice. On July 17, 1862 Congress authorized the President to purchase cemetery grounds “for soldiers who shall have died in the service of their country.” Fourteen cemeteries were established in that first year.

In what is considered to be one of President Abraham Lincoln’s monumental acts, the Gettysburg Address was only two minutes long but is still remembered and quoted today. President Lincoln gave this speech at the Consecration of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg (now called Gettysburg National Cemetery) on November 19, 1863. His dedication to those buried there set the tone for Memorial Day remembrances of the future.

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Memorial Day was officially established by an order of John Logan, Commander in Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic on May 5, 1868. “The 30th day of May, 1868 is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land. In this observance no form or ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.”

Today, the best known of these is Arlington National Cemetery. Arlington is the eternal home of more than 400,000 deceased soldiers and American dignitaries is visited by nearly four million people each year. The Old Guard perform a 24/7/365 vigil over the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It’s a moving experience to observe the hourly changing of the guard.

Today, there are a total of 147 cemeteries within the National Cemetery System (including those outside the continental United States) with 4.1 million burials or inurnment of cremated remains.

On this Memorial Day let us say thank you to those who have served our country and pray for those who are no longer with us.

The Gratification of Visiting Graves

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In 2004, I traveled to Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery to do research for an article I was working on about the place. My trip there was also a pilgrimage of sorts, as the first monument I wanted to see was that of Gone With The Wind author, Margaret Mitchell. As a teen, I had read –and reread—the lengthy novel, enthralled by the tempestuous romance between the fiery beauty, Scarlett O’Hara, and her dashing suitor, Rhett Butler. Mitchell, I soon learned, was more than the author of one of the most lauded books of all time (as if that were not enough), but also a widely-read journalist who had worked for the Atlanta Journal. As a respected writer, she became a role model for me.

As I neared Mitchell’s grave site, I could see her family name, Marsh, prominently etched into the monument. There was no mention of the literary legend she had been. As I knelt before the stone, to lay flowers at her grave, I reached out a hand to trace the letters of her name. Tears welled in my eyes. Mitchell had never seemed as real to me as she did at that moment. The monument was Mitchell’s legacy in tangible form. She was no longer just a name in print. I still count that as one of the most moving experiences of my life. It was a grave site experience shared by countless others who have visited the graves of those they love and admire.

Recently, a friend shared a similar story with me. He told of the satisfaction of traveling to a military cemetery in the Philippines to visit the grave of his uncle. It had been a “lifelong quest” for him. Like my friend, I long to visit the graves of those who meant much in my life. My first fiancé, and my 6th grade teacher are on that list, and a visit to their graves would be a way of saying that to them. So far, I have been unable to locate them. But I am on a mission.

We’d love to hear your own stories about visiting graves. Please share them in the comments section.

When My Yiayia Died

 

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Marjorie Kunch is a funeral director, and writer, based in Arizona. When her grandmother died, Kunch, the mother of two young children, searched for books to answer the questions her two young children had about funeral rituals. Not able to find what she was looking for, Kunch decided to write her own book. Written from the perspective of her Slavic Orthodox faith, When My Baba Died was published in 2015, and a companion workbook soon followed. In 2017, Kunch published a Greek Orthodox version titled, When My Yiayia Died. Both books are tenderly illustrated, with Kunch’s children serving as models.  In a piece I wrote for American Funeral Director’s December issue about Kunch’s works, I noted that  the Worsham College of Mortuary Science graduate “aims to demystify death, funerals and cancer, events that are often kept hidden from children.” For more information, here’s a recent review on Goodreads

The “Creep Factor”

In addition to this site, Melissa and I host a Facebook page for The Morte Girls. This group was created as a place for serious funeral directors to come together to discuss issues with colleagues. We invited some of the best licensed funeral directors we knew, intentionally keeping the group small and manageable to avoid what so many of the other Facebook funeral director groups have become: a place for the morbidly curious. Recently, a young woman requested to join. She claimed to have attended a mortuary school, but it was unclear whether or not she had ever become licensed (one can only hope not). Among her likes: death, murder, horror movies, and snakes. Just one more in  a string of inappropriate requests from those looking for the “creep factor.”

Unfortunately, we see these types all over social media these days. Facebook, Instagram, and even Twitter are littered with those who believe funeral service is a 24/7 Gothfest.  They enroll in mortuary schools around the country for their chance to be near the dead, despite the fact that funeral service is mainly about working with the living.

Each and every time the Press reinforces the “creep factor” with their sensational coverage of those on the fringe, the conversations seem to grow more inane. A recent Instagram post had a young mother asking whether or not a tee shirt with the words “future corpse” came in a onesie for her newborn baby. Just days later, I was bringing a colleague (who eschews social media) up to speed, and mentioned the tee shirt. She told me how she had handled the funeral of a newborn baby who had a surviving twin. “Just think, ” she said, shaking her head with disgust, “about how amusing the mother of that baby, having lost one child already, would find this tee shirt.”

RIP Lt. Chistopher Raguso & Michael Davidson

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In the month of March, the funerals of two New York firefighters took place just days apart. Michael Davidson, 37, lost his life while battling a blaze in a NYC apartment building. Lt. Christopher Raguso was killed in a helicopter accident in Iraq, one day after his 39th birthday. As I read about, and watched the coverage of the funerals of both men, I could not help but think that there could be no better example of why funerals serve a vital purpose. The naysayers may believe that funerals don’t matter, but by all accounts they mattered a great deal to not only the family and friends of these brave men, but to their colleagues and the community at large. Although hearts were heavy, there was no mistaking how the comforting funeral rituals brought together and enveloped mourners. We would all do well to take a lesson from such public funerals before we go believing the media hype about the demise of funeral service.

FDNY’s Michael Davidson     Lt. Christopher Raguso

This Represents Why We Remember.

This picture and tweet appeared on Loyola Coach Porter Moser:

“So many unbelievable images from this journey. Been in & will share later . This 1 touched my. My brother Mitch sent this. My parents gravesite in Naperville. YOU ARE WHO YOU ARE BECAUSE OF YOUR PARENTS! I am here today because of them! I know they are with me !”

We visit graves to pay respect and honor those who we have lost.

The Journey Begins

Alexandra Kathryn Mosca, Doris V. Amen, and Melissa Johnson Williams are three well-known and respected names in funeral service.

Funeral service has come under attack lately. It is being co-opted by a fringe element, unlicensed start-ups, and a media hell bent on turning a solemn industry into entertainment. Like so many of our colleagues, we have worked tirelessly to keep dignity in what we do. To that end, we have created this site. On it, we will highlight the best of funeral service, and call out the worst. We hope you will follow along, and we welcome input by our colleagues.