Forgotten Tradition: Picnicking in a Graveyard, Decoration Day

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Photo courtesy of Nicholas A. Tonelli
Photo courtesy of Nicholas A. Tonelli

I came to age in a much simpler time than my children — TVs were filled with static and came in shades of black and white.  Church, too, was considerably simpler.  We didn’t have worship teams or giant screens on the walls showcasing the lyrics to the latest chart topping praise song.

Nope.  Instead, we had hard wooden pews and broke down hymnals, but when the saints would open these musky old books, boy would the glory fall upon our tiny mountain church.  We may have been on the backside of an unnamed and forgotten Virginia ‘holler’, but on Sunday mornings, we met with God!

Church was important to our family and the only Sunday we’d ever miss came around this time of year each spring.  It was on this day that we’d all gather together early Sunday morning for the simple task of cleaning the headstones in the neighboring cemetery next to the old church building.

It may have been the day of rest, but on this particular Sunday, you could rest assured that you’d go to bed tired from having cleared brush, trimmed around bricks and scrubbed headstones until they were shiny.

The day would be filled with tears, as widows, sons and friends would weep at the sight of simple concrete or marble markers which told the story of lives that were no more.

The day would also be filled with history lessons from Granny who would walk through the graveyard with an almost glimmer in her eye.

“This is my brother’s grave, he fought in the Great War.”

“This is where my cousin is buried, she had a little mean dog that would always bite me… I wish I could remember that dog’s name.”

“Over there is your Pa’s grave, you would have really loved him if you’d ever gotten the chance to know ’em.”

After all of our morning labors were complete, one by one, the hatches to those old Fords would open and some of the most gaudy flowers your eyes have ever witnessed would be packed through the church yard and into the graveyard.

Flowers would be solemnly placed onto tombstones by loved ones and by the end of the afternoon, every grave would have some type of decoration.

Then came my favorite part of what we called “Decoration Sunday”, the churchwide picnic in the cemetery.

It may seem like a ghastly thing to someone from this generation, the sight of families laying out blankets alongside the headstone of a passed loved one and feasting upon fried chicken, but for us, it was a tradition.  A classic American mountain tradition that would culminate with a game of hide-n-seek or tag in a freshly decorated Appalachian graveyard.

We did not run from death as so many these days seem to do, nor did we attempt to amuse ourselves with devices that removed the thought of our own demise to the back-burner of our consciousness.

Nope.

Instead, we embraced death.  The songs we sang all reminded us that we would all soon face death and as a result of this awareness, we were able to live. Truly live.

Decoration Day has become a forgotten relic of a bygone era in America, but I for one, appreciate the reality that I was around for those history lessons, picnics and games of tag in an Appalachian cemetery.

Like articles like this? Then you would love Appalachian Magazine’s Mountain Voice: 2017: A Collection of Memories, Histories, and Tall Tales of Appalachia!  Click here to check out the book on Amazon!

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