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She remembers traveling with her parents and siblings each Memorial Day to a cemetery in western Iowa. They pulled weeds around the grave markers of relatives, laid fresh-cut peonies and told family stories.
Linda Leonard was just a little girl in those days. Now she's 60, but she still makes the trip, bringing her daughter as they carry on the family tradition.
“It's kind of a memory walk,'' she said.
Visiting graves is a ritual dating back centuries in this country, a custom allowing families not only to grieve but to honor and celebrate lives that have passed. For many families, paying respects at cemeteries on Memorial Day weekend is a tradition as important as gathering for Thanksgiving dinner and opening presents around the Christmas tree.
“It's all about the survivors healing (and) paying tribute to people we love,'' said Cathy Pettid, director of the counseling center at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “It's part of the fabric of your family.”
The tradition of visiting graves during the Memorial Day weekend appears to have tapered a bit among younger Americans in some parts of the country, said Bob Fells, executive director of the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association.
Fells attributed the drop to the ongoing trend of increased mobility. People these days are more likely to live away from their hometowns — and farther from family burial plots.
“The decline is not necessarily indifference,'' he said.
In the Midlands, however, the tradition remains strong.
More than 10,000 people are expected to visit Omaha's sprawling 350-acre Forest Lawn Cemetery from Friday through Memorial Day, at times causing bumper-to-bumper traffic, said Greg Easley, general manager.
At Lincoln's Memorial Park, 6,000 to 10,000 people will visit graves over the holiday weekend, said Angela Erickson, director of community and family services.
Bill Cutler, president of Walnut Hill Cemeteries, said his four cemeteries in Council Bluffs will draw 5,000 to 6,000 visitors over the long weekend.
Visitors bring more than flowers. At the graves, they also place things that represent the relative's life or interests: a Husker football helmet, statue of the Virgin Mary, figurine of a dog, a teddy bear, a photo.
Some families bring blankets and eat a picnic lunch. Some bring CD players — a family at a Lincoln cemetery, for instance, played Irish tunes to honor a deceased son who loved that music.
Leonard grew up in Rockwell City, Iowa, and now lives in Omaha. She visits family graves in Jefferson, Iowa, about 45 minutes from her hometown.
The cemetery contains graves of relatives on her father's side, including her grandparents and great-grandparents. Her father, a World War II veteran who died in 1989, also is buried there.
These days she travels to the cemetery with her 14-year-old daughter, sister and mother. Other relatives meet them there.
Thousands of people — an estimated 8,000 — will visit Omaha's Evergreen Memorial Park from Friday through Memorial Day, said Mike Cannon, general manager.
During his six years at Evergreen, he said, the number of visitors in their 20s through 40s has probably declined slightly.
Easley, the general manager of Forest Lawn, said he believes young people are still interested in carrying on the tradition of cemetery visits.
That's certainly true for Misty Flowers.
Flowers, a junior at UNO, visited her grandmother's grave at Forest Lawn with her family as a little girl and still does. Flowers, 20, said her family brings flowers during Memorial Day weekend and other times of the year, including her grandmother's birthday.
Flowers said she plans to carry on the tradition as she grows older because visiting the grave helps her connect with her grandmother.
“I just miss her,'' she said.
On the other hand, Bryanna Anglin, an 18-year-old sophomore at UNO, said she didn't grow up with the tradition of visiting graves. She said as she gets older it's possible she'd try it, but doesn't consider it a priority because it just wasn't a family ritual.
“It wasn't something we did,'' she said.
Some honor their loved ones without actually visiting the cemetery.
Jerry Broz, general manager of Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese of Omaha, said his cemeteries began offering an online flower service this spring, and it has been a popular option for families. People can purchase flowers online and have cemetery staff place them at grave sites for Memorial Day or the Christmas season.
But visitor counts still remain strong, he said.
The five Catholic cemeteries will draw more than 4,000 visitors over the Memorial Day weekend, he said.
Fells, the official with the cemetery organization, said visitor counts nationally among older people, first- and second-generation Americans, remain strong. Counts also are strong and growing among certain new immigrants, such as those from Latin American countries, helping keep visitor counts up at some cemeteries, he said.
Maria Arbelaez, who teaches Latin American history at UNO, said grave visits are an important Latino tradition that immigrants from Mexico and other countries have carried on in the United States.
Many Latino immigrants and their family members are U.S. military veterans, she said, making Memorial Day visits even more meaningful.
Pettid, the UNO counselor, said telling family stories at the grave is an important part of the tradition for many cultures.
Leonard, the woman who visits the Iowa cemetery, said her family always tells a story about her great-grandpa, who was a bit ornery. He walked with a cane and if he wanted to get your attention, he might reach out and hook you with it was you went by.
Her family also tells stories about her six great-aunts who never married and lived together for years at the family farm. Aunt Rose took care of the pigs and also made an awesome salad with lime jello, whipped cream, shredded cheddar cheese and walnuts.
Family members also talk about her father, Lyle Leonard, who earned a Bronze Star during World War II and was taken prisoner in Italy.
Leonard hopes that her daughter will pass along those memories to the next generation.
“It's all about the stories,” she said.
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