Friday, May 25, 2012

Memorial Day and Roots
Finding family grave provides a connection to the past
by Ken Neal
Article originally appeared in the Tulsa World on May 27, 2007

     Monday is Memorial Day, so we get a three-day weekend. Sadly, that is about all the day means to most of us — a holiday.
    As American dead pile up in yet another war, perhaps it is time to restore Memorial Day to its original status, a day set aside to remember and honor those who, in Abraham Lincoln’s words, “gave the last full measure of devotion.”
     Memorial Day was proclaimed in 1868 by Union Gen. John A. Logan and for more than 100 years was celebrated on May 30, regardless of the day of the week on which the date fell.
     Then Congress, trying to “fix” things, in 1971 set Memorial Day for the last Monday in May to guarantee a threeday weekend. We swapped a day of remembrance for a holiday. 
    Memorial Day grew out of the Civil War when women in many communities began to decorate fallen soldiers’ graves with flowers. The practice became so widespread that many Americans still refer to the holiday as “Decoration Day.”
    Through the years Decoration Day became more than a day to honor war dead. It was a day to remember all dead loved ones by visiting and decorating their graves.
      It always seemed a futile exercise to me; after all, dead people don’t give a hoot about flowers. But I’ve come to realize that the day of remembrance and decoration is not for the dead so much as it is for us, the living.
     A walk through most any graveyard can be a solemn experience; a connection with the great body of humankind.
    Here’s an old fellow who lived a long life and, judging from the inscriptions his family put on the tombstone, a happy and productive one.
      But here lies an infant swept away by a childhood disease long since conquered by modern medicine.    Nearby is a young man killed in an accident just as he was starting an adult life.
     In many cases, there are the graves of several wives near the patriarch’s grave. Early day America was hard on women. Through the early 20th century, women worked at their men’s side in the field, managed the household chores and bore children — many children — as well.
    The graves of relatives — even remote ones — trigger the connection with the past and the realization that
these people once suffered and triumphed much as we do today. If they hadn’t, we wouldn’t be here.
That is hardly a profound thought but it came home to me and my son during a visit to a small country cemetery near Stidham, Okla.
    It was a few days before Memorial Day, but people had already started with decorations. The Lenna Cemetery, like thousands all over the country, is well kept. It is on a hill in a bucolic setting.
     It is a comparatively large cemetery, given the fact that Stidham at last count claims but 23 living souls.
    My son, Patrick, digging into the not-so-illustrious background of our Neal clan, found Grandpa John Henry Neal’s grave at Lenna. Through the miracle of the Internet, he located grandpa’s burial site. Patrick had learned that grandpa was a Union Civil War veteran and thus entitled to a standard issue tombstone
complete with his name and the unit in which he served, Company H of the
3rd Arkansas Cavalry. 
    Gale and Mary Treat of Wichita, Kan., had meticulously recorded the graves of people buried at Lenna and put them, complete with pictures, on a Web site. 
    Armed with that information, we walked straight to old John Henry’s grave. He was my great-grandfather. He died in 1912 near Stidham. My father had referred to his grandfather in telling me of his own father’s
early life. I knew great grandpa’s name was John Henry but I didn’t know he was a union soldier in the Civil War. 
    There are mountains of information available if you want to pursue your background. It’s surprising to me how well Americans kept records from the first years of the country.
    Tracing ancestry is largely a matter of picking which branches of the family tree you want. I suspect that almost anyone, if he selects the proper branches on the tree, can trace himself back to royalty or famous people. Or a horse thief, if you select the wrong branch.
    Along the way, you might learn a lot about your people. My branch of the Neals obviously came out of Great Britain, down through the Appalachians and into Arkansas and Oklahoma.
   At a time when immigration is a burning issue, it’s good to remember that virtually all of us were immigrants.
I have a little Indian blood, so I claim to be an original American, until someone notes that Indians were probably the first immigrants to this country.
    One of my friends reminded me that if my ancestors had been well-to-do in the old country, they would not have left. Of course, that’s right. The westward movement in this country was led by people who had very little and so moved west looking for land and a better life. That certainly was true of my people.
     Patrick and I are trying to find more information on the father of old John Henry. His name was also John. So far, we have found one John Neal who was a preacher. In another place, John Neal was in jail. Knowing our DNA, Patrick and I think old John might have been a preacher who strayed from the path!
    Memorial Day. Decoration Day. Whichever, it’s time to honor our dead and maybe climb the family tree.

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