MAYFIELD, Ky. (BP) — Family members of various generations gather around a burial plot. One of the young men digs a hole to plant a dogwood tree while others clean up the site. A young girl lays a bouquet of fresh flowers on two of the graves while an older man speaks of how these deceased family members made a difference in their lives. He calls on another man to lead a short prayer for surviving family members.
The calendar reads Memorial Day, but in parts of the rural South, residents know it as Decoration Day.
Memorial Day for most Americans is a day set aside to honor fallen American veterans, but the holiday itself has its origins in the pre-Civil War South when families, and even whole churches, honored the dead in late spring or early summer. Decoration Day occurred in the rural South’s calendar after spring planting, but before long summer days required extensive hoeing and maintenance of the crops and livestock.
Because the burial sites were “spruced up” and flowers were placed on the graves as “decorations,” the day was called Decoration Day. It would occur anytime in the late spring or early summer. Memorial Day, itself, once popularly called “Decoration Day” by many, grew out of the older observance of southern Christians remembering deceased family and church members.
Parts of the rural South still celebrate Decoration Day in its traditional southern form. The literal definition of Decoration Day or “Decoration,” as it is sometimes called, taken from the Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English, is: “An occasion on which a family or a church congregation gathers … to place flowers on the graves of loved ones and to hold a memorial service for them. Traditionally this involved singing, dinner on the ground as well as a religious service.”
Largely surviving in the rural South as a family event, Decoration Day once was a corporate event for rural churches. The day included such activities as cleaning up the church cemetery, placing fresh flowers on the graves, a sermon by the pastor and a dinner on the ground(s). During the sermon, the pastor would recount how those now buried in the plots influenced the life of the church and provided a positive testimony to current church members. Some rural churches today, particularly in southern Appalachia, still continue the corporate celebration of Decoration Day or its variants (“Cemetery Day”).
Decoration Day, whether observed by families or a rural church, is steeped in Christian values and symbolism. Southern Christians, particularly Baptists of the rural South, tended to reject the autumn observances of remembering the Christian dead that focused on All Saints Day or All Souls Day (Nov. 1 and 2) as practiced by some faith denominations. Instead, they placed Decoration Day in the late spring at a time that nature itself symbolized resurrection. Newly decorated graves in springtime, all facing east to meet the Lord for the future resurrection, seemed more appropriate to these rural congregants. The custom of planting cedar trees (the evergreen cedar illustrates eternal life) or flowering trees such as dogwoods or ornamental fruit trees (symbols of resurrection) near gravesites also conveyed aspects of Christian symbolism.
Fellowship among those who observed Decoration Day reflected the words of Bible in Hebrews 10:25: “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another — and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” As they gathered together, living Christians remembered those who nourished them in the faith. Consequently, Decoration Day often provided the opportunity for family members to hold reunions during the Memorial Day weekend. Hardly an entirely somber event, Decoration Day always balanced reflection and celebration. Fellowship and a communal meal took place in tandem with the respectful graveside observance.
Nevertheless, Decoration Day throughout the South possesses regional variations, especially in southern Appalachia where it has the strongest survival among rural churches. As referenced in Alan and Karen Singer Jabbor’s insightful book, “Decoration Day in the Mountains: Traditions of Cemetery Decoration in the Southern Appalachians,” many of these rural churches continue the custom of setting aside a day to honor the Christian dead.
Appalachians still preserve many customs of the holiday that have disappeared in other parts of the South, such as erecting “grave shelters” over the graves to protect them from the elements. Grave shelters can be found as far north as Kentucky and West Virginia.
Another custom found in Appalachia is the placing of memorabilia, toys and trinkets of the deceased loved ones on the grave. This is especially true for small children who have passed away.
In other parts of the South, other regional customs connected to Decoration Day survive. Some southern families and rural churches once practiced the custom of designating “flower girls” for funerals or for Decoration Day. Instead of showering and honoring a bride with a plethora of flowers, these flower girls would decorate churches and gravesites with flowers to pay respect to the deceased. Being chosen for this role was an honor. Today this custom largely survives only in some African-American family and church observances. Nevertheless, older white southern women remember being chosen as flower girls for such occasions.
Today, many southerners live in less rural areas, and Decoration Day customs are being conflated into the nationwide observance of Memorial Day. The long Memorial Day weekend provides the best opportunity to remember deceased family members and veterans, since a Decoration Day observed apart from this weekend is disappearing except perhaps in parts of Appalachia.
Almost every living Christian today possesses a memory of being witnessed to and instructed in the faith by those who now reside with the Lord. Whether or not we set aside a special day to honor them, we should be grateful for them.
Decoration Day provided that opportunity.
Stephen Douglas Wilson is the dean emeritus and chair of the social studies department of Mid-Continent University in Mayfield, Ky., and is a member of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee. Myriah Snyder is an English major at Mid-Continent University. Both have participated in Decoration Day events.