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Decoration Day

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11.06.08

Memorial Day ushers in the summer season of Decoration Days observed at many rural cemeteries throughout the southern Appalachian region, the Upland South, and Midwest.

While Decoration Day may coincide with Memorial Day in some locations, it is a different observance with a unique purpose. Memorial Day began following the Civil War as an occasion to honor the Civil War dead, and today has broadened to remember those who died in all wars.

Decoration Day was observed long before the Civil War, and honors all who are buried in a specific cemetery, typically associated with a family group, a country church, or rural community. It involves cleaning up the cemetery, clearing it of winter debris, weeds and encroaching forest, decorating the graves with flowers and mementos, holding a religious service, singing or listening to music, and sharing dinner on the ground. Decoration Day is not the same as a church homecoming or family reunion, although it may share elements of those occasions.

The special time is observed between Memorial Day and late summer, typically late spring, and is often scheduled in a staggered fashion to allow people to attend multiple events in a region.

Alan and Karen Singer Jabbour describe and photograph the varying traditions of this custom in Decoration Day in the Mountains: traditions of cemetery decoration in the Southern Appalachians. The custom may have originated on the coast, but moved to the piedmont and into the mountains and, from there, dispersed throughout the Midwest. Decoration Day occurs in Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma and Missouri. The custom was taken back to Africa by former slaves who settled Liberia between the 1820s and 1850s.

The Jabbours describe interesting circumstances of decorations in western North Carolina. Many cemeteries in this region were rendered inaccessible by car when Fontana Lake was created in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the 1940s. Although the federal government promised to build a road to reach these remote locations on the North Shore of the lake, the promise has not been fulfilled. Consequently, cemetery visitors must ride a boat across the lake and hike up to the ridges, carrying their tools, supplies and food.

These cemeteries are located on ridgetops. Often, the graves are mounded. Once they are cleared of weeds, they must be remounded, and then are covered with sand or white gravel. The photographs of these mounded graves are quite striking; the images might remind one of sleeping bodies in a hospital ward or dormitory setting, or perhaps Ludwig Bemelmans’ classic picture book "Madeline": "In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines lived twelve little girls in two straight lines."

After cleaning and recovering the graves, people decorate them with flowers. The old custom was to make paper flowers during the winter months for spring decorating, but today, people tend to choose silk flowers. The stems are inserted into the ground in varying patterns. Some look like a row of buttons on a dress, others are random, still others are covered with a blanket of blooms. Some graves have additional baskets, urns, or saddles of flowers. All graves in a cemetery are decorated with something, whether the caretakers are related or not. They are amazing displays of care and devotion to departed souls.

Those tending the graves maintain connections to remaining living souls as they enjoy a meal together on the ground. The Jabbours emphasize the significance of this word "ground". People originally spread their food on the ground of the cemeteries and ate in communion with each other and the dead they were remembering. There were no picnic tables, pavilions, or other facilities for their comfort. In time, those things were built; the book includes photos of benches and other structures people have added for the convenience especially of older grave caretakers. Today, in this area at least, we say "dinner on the grounds", meaning the church property broadly.

In Virginia, we know of Decoration Days in Grayson, Dickenson, and Lee counties. Does anyone in Tazewell County observe this custom?  If so, please let us know at info@tcplweb.org.  To read more about Decoration Day and burial customs in the Appalachian region, visit www.tcplweb.org or call 988-2541.

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