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Decoration Day is a tradition in the South

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Every year, throughout the mountainous south, cities of the dead also become, for one day, cities of the living. Historically, families brought their lunch and spent the day. A few years ago, someone originating from outside the area expressed their horror to me of having observed families eating their lunch in a cemetery. Here, in Southern Appalachia, dinner on the ground on Decoration Day is a time-honored tradition, a carryover from the not-so-distant past when people mostly walked everywhere they went. Returning home to retrieve a lunch following morning worship before embarking to the cemetery, which may or may not have been beside the church, simply was not practical.

Within immediate vicinity, Decoration Days are often scattered so that people can attend more than one. My father, born in 1925, could remember a steady line of young people coming over the ridge from Demory to Decoration Day, observed on the second Sunday in June at Woodward Cemetery in the Whitman Hollow community. The previous Sunday, my father as a youth made the trek from Whitman to Decoration Day at Pond Cemetery. His grandmother, Sarah Sharp Haggard, was their self-appointed leader.

In the 1930s, his mother made flowers from paper and dipped them in paraffin for Decoration Day. Unlike some area cemeteries shrouded with creeping myrtle, a common ground cover, Woodward Cemetery was kept clean swept. In accordance with a tradition of the Scotch-Irish, burial mounds were maintained on top of the graves. As late as the 1970s, most people, it seemed, continued to bring something from home to decorate with on Decoration Day. We would place cuttings from our yard in glass jars partially filed with water, covered with aluminum foil, and set them near the headstones.

The Decoration Day tradition in Southern Appalachia precedes the federal observance of Memorial Day. In recent years, some have seized upon the idea that decorating the graves of non-veterans around Memorial Day — unlike local Decoration Days observed on a Sunday, is always on a Monday — somehow takes something away from veterans. The first federal observance of Memorial Day was not until 1971. Its history, however, can be traced to a May 5, 1868 proclamation by Maj. Gen. John Alexander Logan, third Commander and Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, designating May 30 of that year (a Saturday) “for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land.” The GAR was a Union veterans organization established shortly after the American Civil War.

I remember well, when I was a child, people would come prepared to stay for a while on Decoration Day. These days, it seems, many people just come and go, if they come at all. Yet, when I see young children who have not yet begun to read, walking among ancestral graves on Decoration Day with their parents and running their hands over the inscriptions, I have hope that Decoration Day tradition will continue.

The family cemetery, I expect, will continue to hold a special place in Appalachian culture. With the proliferation of artificial flowers and other outdoor decor that can withstand exposure to the elements, year-round decorating has become commonplace.

As darkness fell in Elk Valley the evening before Easter, a solitary figure was seen seated on a bench beside the grave of her son, Nick Muse, who died unexpectedly as the result of a car accident on Easter Sunday seven years ago. Later that evening, friends and family would join her for a candlelight vigil.

With the mountains towering in the background, the surrounding scenery no doubt reminded the pioneers of Scotland. Beneath a bed of river rock surrounded by a cut stone grave enclosure, the gravesite is in keeping with Scotch-Irish tradition. Numerous reminders of Nick’s interest and his family’s love for him adorn and surround his grave. A descendant of early pioneers, here in East Tennessee before Tennessee was a state, Nick was passionate about everything. He loved life and the joy he brought to others.

Joe Stephens is a local historian whose columns appear weekly on the history page of the LaFollette Press.