Decoration Day

October 18, 2013



Decoration — Not Just For Cakes

Decoration isn’t always something you put on a cake. In the South, there remain pockets of small communities which celebrate, “Decoration Day,” that we shorten to just “Decoration.” I grew up thinking everyone went to Decoration, and was amazed to discover that it’s observed in only a few Southern communities.
My Mother’s family in North Alabama observes Decoration, but my Father’s family in North Florida had never heard of it. Some friends in South Carolina go to Decoration, but no one I know in Georgia has any idea what it is about.
My Father was a little stunned when he realized that once a year he would be required to put on his best suit and go stand around in the cemetery with his in-laws, both living and the dearly departed. That’s basically what it is; standing around, admiring the graves and remembering those gone on before us. (To heaven, not the Golden Corral.)
Decoration isn’t the same as Memorial Day, that’s for our armed forces. Some people say that Memorial Day actually grew out of Confederate Memorial Day, which is believed to have originated with regular old-fashioned Decoration Day. This is why Decoration celebrations are so often found in older, more historic communities where little has changed over the years.
These are my Aunts decorating the graves on Saturday, preparing for Sunday’s event.
In the few areas that still celebrate Decoration, people go all out to do it right. You will see large signs on businesses that announce, “Get your Decoration chicken bucket here!” or “Decoration Sale — turnips half price.” This year, my Mother’s hometown of Hartselle even had the giant Wal-Mart get in on the act by stocking a huge selection of Decoration grave flowers, as if the local florists haven’t been holding their own all these years.
What keeps Decoration even more underground (oh, now there’s the pun of the century) is the fact that each community observes Decoration on a different day of the year. Hartselle celebrates the occasion on Mother’s Day.
Several carloads of my cousins, aunts and uncles, arrive at the cemetery on Saturday, actually two different cemeteries for us, and with whisk brooms, hand shovels and clippers, clean the graves of my Grandparents, Great Grandparents, and even the Great-Great Grandparents. After every grave with a relative resting below is neat and tidy, we place beautiful flower arrangements on the headstones.
On Sunday morning, we dress up in our best. I always recycle my Easter dress from a few weeks before, and then we take ourselves out to the cemetery.  There, we meander throughout the hillside graves, admiring the mounds of beautiful flowers and chatting with the other families who have also spent the previous day decorating their loved one’s resting place. It’s a given that we will stop to admire the ancient Indian burial sites where stones have been neatly stacked on top for ages. No one dares touch them out of reverence and a healthy dose of fear.
There’s something about standing with family in a plot that bears your name literally carved in stone, at a time when you aren’t consumed with grief for an actual funeral, which is rather peaceful and sweet. You tend to reflect kindly on those buried there, and think about how they would love seeing everyone together and what they would be saying to us now.
One year, when my boys were small, dressed in their matching little seersucker suits, skipping round and round the stones that edged my Grandparent’s graves, I started to tell them to stop, but then thought my Granddaddy would have said, “Let them play.” So I did.
Photo from Journey Proud.


We used to end the day with a covered dish luncheon on tables spread beneath the large oak trees, but now it’s been relocated to a home with the promise of air- conditioning, dry roof, and comfortable chairs for the older folks.
Traditions in the South are one unique feature that keep us tied to our place.  Decoration is a tradition that keeps us . . . (oh, I can’t say it) “grounded.” Just like Scarlett had a longing to return to Tara, we too understand that pull of home, even if no one else is there.
Many of us have moved away from the places where generations of our ancestors called home. But still, we return and fulfill our duty. We bring deviled eggs and gallon jugs of tea to the luncheon, and sit and listen to the older relatives talk about recent ailments. We look at photos of new babies, and we all give hugs and plan to return the next year.
To be the one decorating, hopefully not decorated.

  • When I was a child, Decoration was all about wearing my Easter dress that Mother made, and seeing distant cousins I only saw once a year. Now I treasure the memories of the time spent on those day with my parents and grandparents. Their graves are the ones that draw me back to Decoration each year I get a chance to go. Thanks for writing .

  • Thank you for this post; it’s a nostalgic reminder of growing up in Eastern Kentucky where we had similar observances. I remember the term, Decoration Day, but don’t recall a specific date…although it must have been during the time when peonies and climbing roses were in bloom, as that’s what I seem to remember my mother taking to decorate the graves. I also recollect fried chicken and potato salad and, no doubt, deviled eggs in the mix!

  • Oh, I am from North Alabama alright. The cemetery where my parents and my baby son are buried still observe their annual Decoration Day. I live several hundred miles away but have returned to attend in years past and hope to again.

  • I wrote a whole chapter on Decoration Day in the book I published about my mother a few years ago. I remember it well. Most of the old Thompsons (on my father’s side) have died out, but I think the Jones’s (my mother’s side) still do it. I never really attended that one regularly, although my mother and her sister went as long as they were able. Looking back, it seems so quaint, doesn’t it? There was dinner on the ground, and singing in the little church all afternoon.

  • Being born and growing up in Alabama, I so remember Decoration Day! The cemeteries were a sight for sore eyes with all of the flowers. My aunts still do this. It is interesting how it all got started and caught on. Have a great weekend.
    Be a sweetie,
    Shelia 😉

  • Oh, yes, I was dragged, I mean taken, to the cemetery on Decoration Day many times as a child. Once when visiting one grandmother in Walhalla, SC, but mostly by the other grandparents and aunts in Lawrenceburg, TN. I wished I had written down all the family history I heard those days but I didn’t.

  • I remember my mom and dad taking part in this tradition. Some churches still do this and I think it’s a great idea to care for the “old forgotten cemetery” that most of our communities have. Great post!

    The French Hutch

  • It’s so heart-warming to see a tradition like this is still carried on. I never heard of Decoration Day till your blog, but love the idea. So many little family graveyards are being swallowed by nature, forgotten and untended. It’s wonderful to remember those who came before us.

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