Decoration Day is a time when families and small communities (often church congregations) gather in cemeteries not to bury anyone but to honor and celebrate the dead with a picnic. Well, it is more than that in the South anyway. Folks gather to clean and decorate graves of not only of fallen soldiers but family and friends; they also sing songs, tell stories of the past and then have a big picnic in the cemetery –as I’ve always heard. The history of Decoration Day is varied and holds not only elements of our Nation’s History, but it captures traditions of small communities and rural heritages. Some say the term Memorial Day came into common use as early as 1882 to replace Decoration Day.
I have only heard and seen this tradition from afar. My grandmother would gather with her friends and go to family graves to clean and decorate and sit a spell to commune. It was no quick trip or event or even organized by a particular congregation. It was a whole day dedicated to honoring and communing with the dead, and it was done on Memorial day or thereabouts. It was not about going on the lake, cooking out in the yard, or focusing just on the living family members.
Passing by a small church outside of Cave Springs around the end of May, I noticed across from a small rock Baptist church a cemetery and on this day all of the graves had new flowers. No leaves gathered on the graves and no overgrown grass. Long tables packed with food were set up on the edge of cemetery and lawn chairs under shade trees. Women were not in church dress but clothes for working and gardening.
NPR covered Decoration Day in a brief piece: ‘Decoration Day’: The South Honors Its Dead
Another piece, “Decoration Day and Dinner on the Ground” gives a wonderful background to the tradition and origin of this tradition: “The few folks left in the American South that are familiar with the term “dinner on the ground” or “grounds,” and still practice it for the most part, typically and according to renowned folklorist and author, Alan Jabbour who has done extensive research on the subject, incorrectly associate its origins to be exclusively associated with church suppers, or picnic meals held in conjunction with Sunday church activities. Jabbour acknowledges the term and its etymology is a matter of debate, but that “…it probably stems from the idea of a picnic-like communion on the ground at the cemetery.” He also points out that at this time most cemeteries were communal and not affiliated with a church. Jabbour says that people he interviewed during his research asserted “dinner on the ground” is the correct phrase. “It seems probable that the original sense of the phrase was a ‘dinner spread on the ground like a picnic’” in a cemetery. However, once people began building picnic tables and benches for dinners on the ground the natural progression of the folk etymology moved away from its original origin and in modern minds became more associated with cemetery or church “grounds.”
Decoration Day seems to be a relic now. The more traditional Memorial Day celebration is more well known. We like our picnics away from the dead or reminders of our own fate. As towns grow and folks move away and/or die, Decoration Day will become even more a thing of the past, something taken over by a state organization with no stories to tell or potluck dishes to bring.