Tennessee Mountain Stories

Why we celebrate Decoration Day

This past Sunday was Decoration Day at Campground Cemetery.  We’ve talked about this holiday here before and we will probably visit it again because it’s been a staple of my family memories over the years. 

If you didn’t grow up with the tradition of Decoration Day, it may be hard to understand why people would get dressed up and spend a hot summer day wandering around a cemetery.  Yet, if you were raised on it, Decoration Day is as normal as Thanksgiving or Christmas.  Someone asked me this week, “Why?”.  You can bet I had an answer.

Remember!  That’s the real reason why we celebrate Decoration Day.  We need to remember our ancestors.  I so much want my children to know where they came from.  I want them to know the struggles those people went through and even the mistakes they made.  I want them to rejoice in the successes and the joys.  It is our heritage. 

Many times I’ve heard the story of my great-grandmother making her decoration flowers – in her day everyone decorated with homemade crepe-paper flowers.  She purposely made a lot of extras.  On Sunday evening after everyone had placed their flowers on their loved ones’ graves, she returned to the cemetery and placed one or two little flowers on each grave that had received none. 

Do you realize the sacrifice she made for complete strangers?  Many of those graves have only plain stones and the names of the occupants are long since forgotten.  Yet, she felt such a need to memorialize them that she gave of her very limited resources – both her time and her money – to show that they were remembered in some way.

As Daddy reminded me of this story last Sunday, I commented that there are many more graves today than there were fifty years ago.  He pointed out that there’s an awful lot more without flowers too.  Now I’m not saying if you didn’t stick some colored plastic on a rock this weekend that you’ve completely forgotten your history and your heritage.  And I do realize I’m ‘preaching to the choir’ since you are taking the time to read a history blog.  Still I have to ask, are we remembering?

On Decoration Day you can see neighbors that you haven’t seen in months and pass a quick hello or share a nearly forgotten memory.  Someone might tell a story and you’ll learn about families that you never had a chance to meet.  We comment on how old or how young people were when they passed away and we wish they could see us now.  And yes, we mourn a bit – even as years pass, there are some graves that always bring a tear for they are still sorely missed.

I know my family from these walks through the cemetery.  Of my eight great-grandparents, three passed away before I was born, and three more died while I was really too young to remember them.  Yet I’ve heard the stories and I feel that I know them.  A couple of weeks ago I shared with you my great-grandmother’s china cabinet; one of my older cousins visited recently and he remembered it being in her house.  I never saw that and yet I feel a connection to her and value the piece because of it.  That connection only comes from remembering – from family continuing to remember.

The good news here is that you don’t have to wait until Decoration Day next year, you don’t even have to drive to the cemetery.  Plan a family reunion or just sit down with your kids, grandkids or nieces and nephews to tell them a story.  Tell a story you told last year or last month; it is the repetition that really cements the stories in our memories. 

Do they sigh and say, “You know you’ve told me this a hundred times?”

Feel free to remind them, “I want to hear it again myself.”


3/3/2016 UPDATE
I just read a very interesting passage in The Land of Saddle-bags by James Watt Raine and I wanted to share it verbatim here.

"Another custom peculiar to the Mountain People is the 'decorating' of burial grounds, a community celebration which has no apparent connection with the well-known memorial services for old soldiers.  It is celebrated on any date convenient for the locality.  The preceding day men meet at the cemetery to mow the briers, cut down the brush, and clean out the fence corners around the graves.  The next day the people bring flowers to decorate all the graves.  This done, the choir, having practiced for the occasion, singes the old familiar hymns, and if ambitious, renders something resembling an anthem.  If a preacher is present, of course he 'improves' the occasion."