Decoration Day


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Events to remember...


“Decoration Day, A Southern Tradition”

   by Ruth Teaford Baker


 There are certain Southern Traditions that are misunderstood by many  people from other areas of the country.  One of these is “Decoration Day.”  We have been accused of being “morbid” by bringing back the memories of our loved ones who have departed this life.  “Leave the dead alone, and concentrate on the living,” they say. 

 Regardless of sentiments, there is a mighty exodus from other states into the South during the month of May.  The tone has changed somewhat from the past, but the basis of the tradition is strong family ties that transcend time and space.  People return to their roots as surely as the birds return year after year to their territories.

 It has not been many years in the past that a corpse was kept at home before the funeral.  The “wake” was a time when family and community came together with food and condolences at least a day and night before burial.  Even in today’s changes, food plays a big part in an effort to help neighbors through a hard time.  Food is brought into the home for several days and a large meal served on the day of burial.  This is unique to the Southern way of showing respect.

 Every town has its “odd” character that becomes a legend.  Ours was called “Lying Jack.”  Although everyone in a 10 mile radius knew him and knew what he could pull with his playing with the truth in such a manner that would fool the most wise, they would still fall for his tales.  One day, he saddled up his horse, got his grave-digging shovel in hand and started for a cemetery.  At each house he passed, someone would call out, “Where you goin’, Jack?”

 Jack said, “Well, you know, Mrs. (well-known lady of the community) died last night.  I’m going to the graveyard to dig her grave.”

 The men grabbed their shovels, and took off following Jack down the road like the “Pied Piper of Hamlin.”  When they arrived at the cemetery, there was a large group of men ready to get to the job at hand.  They realized they had fallen for another of Lying Jack’s tales.

 My large family lived close to the large “Douglas Guthrie Cemetery.”  My father and brothers were always a part of the grave digging that was done by hand.  All of the men in the community came together with picks and shovels.  There was no machinery to do the tedious job.  At times, dynamite had to be used to blast loose rocks that could not be handled any other way.  The men were experienced in the use of explosives.  Most had worked in the underground mines and the farmers had used it many times in clearing “new ground” for their fields.

 The young girls in the communities may not have a new Easter dress, but if at all possible, they had a new one for Decoration Day.  Looking pretty and sashaying up and down the road was the name of the game.  I can remember starting the day off with my lavender organdy dress with deeper colored bows on the sleeves and the neck that Mrs. Bessie Edgil had made for me.  New shoes finished my special ensemble.  It wasn’t many hours into the day that I had pulled off the shoes and still sashayed, the difference being, I was now carrying the new shoes in my hands.  New shoes surely do pinch the toes of a country kid who is used to going barefoot.

 The graves were decorated with fresh flowers from the yards and put into a quart fruit jar with water.  It wasn’t long into the day until they were drooping from the hot sun.  Then came colored paper.  Patterns were cut; each petal was pulled with the blade of the scissors, leaving it softly curled at the end.  A bud was formed and each petal was carefully wrapped in layers, followed by green leaves applied last and wired into place.  These were used as single flowers stuck into the ground with the wire; they were formed into wreaths; they were made into bouquets, and thus began the many-colored flowers that changed the look of the cemetery.  Later, the flowers were dipped into hot wax and this preserved them through the rains to come.  Silk flowers are relatively new on the scene.  Now, the cemeteries bloom all year due to the durable silk flowers on the market.

 Yes, the tradition of “Decoration Day” is alive and well in Walker County.  Every Sunday from late April to early June finds family members crisscrossing the county, meeting with families and renewing friendships.  All the new babies born in the past year are paraded for all to ooh and ah over, and to decide which side of the family he/she “favors.”  As we look around the tables, we want to hold the moment because we never know who will be missing next year.  As one of our pop songs reminds us, “We have This Moment to Remember."