All across the world, families gather in cemeteries to honor their ancestors. Many perform the same long-standing traditions year after year to remember those that have gone before them. Your family may be one of them – or maybe you could use some new ideas on how to honor your loved ones at the cemetery this Memorial Day.

In China, millions of people flock to the gravestones of their ancestors in the spring. Chinese Memorial Day has been celebrated for more than 2500 years. The holiday goes by several other names – Ancestor’s Day, Qingming Festival, and Tomb-Sweeping Day. Families celebrate by cleaning gravesites, praying to their ancestors, burning incense, and making offerings of food money, and flowers.

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In Finland, as many as 75% of the population visit the graves of their ancestors on Christmas eve to pay their respects and light candles. The holiday has its roots in a belief that the souls of the dead are closest to their living descendants during the winter solstice.

The Finnish tradition of leaving candles at gravesides began in the 1920’s after the Finnish Civil War when candles became affordable for the masses. At first, candles were left only on the graves of soldiers. Later, the tradition expanded to include ancestors in general.

Can you imagine the snow-covered cemeteries with nearly every grave lit up with a candle? It’s just magical!

In Finland ancestors are remembered with candles on their gravesites.

Memorial Day in America

Veterans Day is a U.S. federal holiday in remembrance those who have served in the US Armed Forces. It is observed on November 11th, the date that marks the end of World War I. Veterans Day coincides with holidays held in other countries on the same date to honor military veterans, such as Remembrance Day and Armistice Day.

But Memorial Day is distinctly different. Veterans Day is a holiday to recognize the service of all U.S. military veterans, while Memorial Day is set aside to honor those who died in military service.

Memorial Day began shortly after the U.S. Civil War as a day to hold ceremonies and decorate the graves of fallen soldiers. In fact, the holiday was originally called Decoration Day. Even today, small American flags are often posted by veteran’s organizations, cemetery managers, and families on military gravesites on Memorial Day.

As time has gone on, the tradition of giving honor to deceased military servicemen and women on Memorial Day has expanded to honoring all deceased ancestors. Remembering those who have gone before us helps future generations feel connected to their heritage and strengthens families.

Memorial Day is celebrated on the last Monday in May, as spring gives way to summer. And many families now mark the holiday with family reunions and picnics, in additional to honoring their ancestors at the cemetery.

What about you? Maybe you already have some time-honored family traditions for Memorial Day or perhaps you could add some new ones. If so here are 10 ideas for ways you can honor your ancestors at the cemetery on Memorial Day.

Idea #1 to Honor Your Ancestors at the Cemetery on Memorial Day:

Visit the Gravesite and Document it with the BillionGraves App

Take Photos of Gravestones with Your Smartphone

If headstones could talk, they would have a lot of stories to tell. But they can’t, so BillionGraves is the next best thing. As gravestones deteriorate, those stories are quickly fading away. We need to capture them before it’s too late.

BillionGraves’ goal is to preserve cemetery data and make it readily available for genealogical research to honor our ancestors and loved ones. Then, even if a loved one’s gravestone is damaged or worn by time, the invaluable information recorded at their final resting place will still be available.

BillionGraves is the world’s largest GPS-linked cemetery data resource. As you take photos with the BillionGraves app, each gravestone is automatically marked with a GPS location. The data is then made readily available at BillionGraves.com for free for millions of families around the globe for generations to come.

Download the Free BillionGraves App

Before your family gathers at the cemetery on Memorial Day invite them to download the free BillionGraves’ app on their smartphones. Then you can all work together to photos of gravestones. It’s as easy as taking pictures of each grave as you walk along.

In just a short visit – about an hour – 300 to 400 records can be preserved. So you’ll be able to document not only your ancestor’s gravestones but also those who are buried nearby. Then your family will be helping others to find their ancestors!

When you are finished taking photos, upload them with one click of a button to BillionGraves’ database.

Getting Started:

1.    Download the BillionGraves app to your smartphone.

2.    Create a free account on the app or at BillionGraves.com.

3.    In the app, click on “take pictures” to begin taking photos in your local cemetery. The GPS location will automatically be recorded.

4.    When finished, connect to Wi-Fi and upload cemetery photos.

5.    Repeat! 🙂

Idea #2 to Honor Your Ancestors at the Cemetery on Memorial Day:

Clean The Gravestone

Cleaning a gravestone may be one of the last acts of kindness we can show loved ones. And what better time to do it than on Memorial Day?

Gravestones that are left uncleaned are slowly being destroyed by lichen, moss, mold, algae and other biological growth. This leads to chipping, flaking, and cracking.

It’s important to clean the gravestones while they are still stable – before the surface has become marred. If the stone is already chipping or flaking, please don’t touch it. Cleaning the gravestone at that point will only cause further damage.

But there is a way to clean headstones that are still stable safely to prevent further damage. Check out BillionGraves’ blog post Gravestone Cleaning 101 to learn how. And you may want to pick up a BillionGraves’ gravestone cleaning kit so that you will be prepared to honor your ancestors on Memorial Day in a very special way.

Idea #3 to Honor Your Ancestors at the Cemetery on Memorial Day:

Decorate the Grave

Decorating gravestones is the most common way that families honor their ancestors and loved ones. Some families adorn graves with flowers, others with flags. Still others leave pebbles or coins. It is also common to leave remembrances at the graveside that touch on the hobbies or interests of the deceased – such as a fishing lure, a model car, a hat, or stuffed animal.

It’s a good idea to keep floral arrangements, ribbons, or other decorations away from the names and dates so that the important data is not obscured.

And since you may not be at the cemetery every week to water flowers, it is important to plant varieties that are drought and heat resistant. You can choose between perennials or annuals.

Perennial flowers are more expensive than annuals, but they will come back year-after-year without you having to do anything. Beware though, some perennials have creeping roots that may disturb the gravestone.

Here are some examples of perennials that don’t have extensive root systems:

  • iris
  • daffodils
  • crocus
  • hardy geranium
  • black-eyed Susan
  • daylily (like those pictured in the photo above)
  • hens and chicks

Annual flowers die with the end of the season, which allows you to create a new look each spring. They are less expensive than perennials and often come in brighter colors. Here are a few types of annual flowers that are hardy and will continue to bloom even under the hot summer sun:

  • vinca
  • petunia
  • marigold
  • zinnia
  • geranium
  • salvia

Idea #4 to Honor Your Ancestors at the Cemetery on Memorial Day:

Take Family Photos

Memorial Day can be a great time to take annual family photos. The weather is usually nice enough to be outside.

If you aren’t using a professional photographer, be sure to take along an extra non-family member to take the picture so you can all be included.

It’s nice to include the gravestones of some of your special ancestors. Or try one with your family surname stone with everyone peeking over the top. You could even take some with the youngest living child next to the oldest ancestor’s gravestone. It could also be fun to take a photo with the grandchild who looks most like their deceased ancestor.

Idea #5 to Honor Your Ancestors at the Cemetery on Memorial Day:

Discover their Military History and Place a Remembrance

If you have an ancestor that served in the military, do a little research to find out where they served, which war, their rank, and unit. It will bring new meaning to your family’s time at the cemetery.

Tell your ancestor’s military stories to their descendants. Encourage them to reflect on the sacrifices made by the fallen soldiers and their families. You may wish to add a small American flag or a plaque near their grave.

You could even arrange a special color-guard ceremony to increase the love and patriotism in your family for their ancestors who died in military service.

Idea #6 to Honor Your Ancestors at the Cemetery on Memorial Day:

Picnic at the Cemetery

Some city managers or sextons have designed their cemeteries to be beautiful park-like settings. They have rolling green lawns, lakes, forested areas, and even trails for hiking or biking.

These can be great places to have a family picnic. You’ll feel close to your ancestors as you enjoy the peaceful setting with your living family members.

But, Memorial Day can be a painful time for some family members who are still grieving, so if there are others at the cemetery please be mindful of them.

Idea #7 to Honor Your Ancestors at the Cemetery on Memorial Day:

Connect with Family Members

Memorial Day is often a chance to hold an extended family reunion. It may be the only day of the year you see your cousins, great-aunt and uncles, or more distant relations.

It could even become a great chance to extend your family tree. Take along family group sheets to your cemetery gathering for family members to fill out.

And if you would like to make this a Memorial Day you’ll never forget, see if you could connect with one of your DNA matches that you have never met before at the graveside of your common ancestor. Learn more in this BillionGraves blog post: How to Use Your DNA Results to Find Your Ancestor’s Graves. (Then you could even use the BillionGraves app to document the cemetery together!)

Idea #8 to Honor Your Ancestors at the Cemetery on Memorial Day:

Tell Stories

Invite a few of the older members of your family to tell stories about your ancestors at the cemetery. This will bring family history alive for younger generations.

As they are talking, use the FamilySearch Memories App to record their priceless stories. Just imagine future generations being able to listen to their great-grandmother telling a story about their great-great-great grandmother!

Idea #9 to Honor Your Ancestors at the Cemetery on Memorial Day:

Ponder, Pray, and Sing

The cemetery can be a peaceful place to ponder on your ancestor’s life – or the meaning of life in general.

Here is a list of some of the most popular hymns sung at cemeteries:

  • Ave Maria
  • I Watch the Sunrise
  • Morning Has Broken
  • Old Rugged Cross
  • Amazing Grace
  • How Great Thou Art

Or it could be even more fun to sing songs that your ancestors knew and loved. Some of the older members of your family may be willing to perform songs they heard sung as children. And don’t forget to pull out the
FamilySearch Memories App to record them!

Idea #10 to Honor Your Ancestors at the Cemetery on Memorial Day:

Share Family Heirlooms

Giving family photos or treasures away while
you are at the cemetery will create a lasting memory.

Family heirlooms that are inherited after you are gone may be appreciated, but how much more meaningful might it be to give them to your descendants at a graveside Memorial Day ceremony while you are still alive to tell them all about it?

As you choose from these 10 ways to honor your ancestors at the cemetery this Memorial Day we hope you create memories that will last for generations!

Happy Memorial Day!

Cathy Wallace and The BillionGraves Team

P.S. If you would like help planning a group cemetery event send an email to Volunteer@BillionGraves.com and we’ll be happy to assist you!