Memorial Day

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When I was a little girl growing up in Roxbury, we always visited two cemeteries on Memorial Day. My mother’s family were buried at Forest Hills Cemetery, and my father’s family were buried at Fairview Cemetery. We three children "piled into the fliver", and with Mother driving, and Dad directing, we made our annual pilgrimage.

In those days Memorial Day, or Decoration Day, was always observed on May 30. It seemed that, without fail, the lilacs, which we took to both cemeteries, were at their loveliest on that date.

The famous Rutland Herald "Lilac Time" editorial was published originally on May 29, 1929. This year, they ran the editorial on May 14. That seemed to me a week too early. On May 14, I woke up to a light covering of snow on my just emerging peas! The lilacs which in the "dooryard bloom" and reach up to my bedroom windows did not fully open until Sunday, May 19, following another snowstorm.

In an old book, Sketches of Boston, Past and Present, and of Some Few Places in Its Vicinity, published in 1851, among the many places described are two cemeteries, Mount Auburn and Forest Hills. I learned that the original 100 acres of Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge were purchased in 1829 by the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. It was to be a combination of experimental gardens and "rural cemetery." By 1835, the idea of the experimental gardens had been abandoned, and the Mount Auburn Cemetery Proprietors were the sole owners.

In 1848 Forest Hills Cemetery was laid out on 70 acres, and according to the book, "a large portion is covered with most of the varieties of trees shrubs, and herbaceous plants which are indigenous to New England." About both cemeteries it was written that "the carriage avenues and foot paths have been laid out on the principles of landscape gardening."

This was the period in which public parks were being developed. In 1857 Frederick Law Olmsted was appointed superintendent of New York City’s Central Park then under construction. Cemeteries were seen as another form of public park. In a less mobile society, it was a universal practice to visit the family lot and decorate the graves on Memorial Day, often with lilacs. In Vermont there are undoubtedly still many families able to observe this tradition. But for those of us whose families may be buried far away, the lilac is a link with the past, and, as the Herald editorial put it, "is still the sturdy, wholesome dooryard emblem of the New England home."

This is Edith Hunter on the Center Road.

Writer and historian Edith Hunter lives in Weathersfield Center, Vermont.

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