What is Decoration Day?

Alan Jabbour, who authored Decoration Day in the Mountains: Traditions of Cemetery Decoration in the Southern Appalachians with his wife Karen Singer Jabbour, provides some insight to a grassroots ritual that led to the creation of a federal holiday. –alyssa

Many rural community cemeteries in western North Carolina hold “decorations.” A decoration is a religious service in the cemetery when people decorate graves to pay respect to the dead. Each cemetery holds its decoration on a traditional calendar day – say, the second Sunday in June. As Decoration Day approaches, people go to clean, repair, mow, and weed their community cemetery. Leaning or fallen headstones are re-sited. If the site uses gravel, the gravel may be supplemented or rearranged. Next they decorate the graves with flowers.

The early part of the decoration proper focuses on final dressing of the graves as people mingle, socialize, and reflect on loved ones buried there. Then gospel singing begins, followed by a sermon, and then more gospel singing. The formal program then dissolves into more private and small-group visiting and reflecting on the cemetery. Finally, the group assembles at outdoor tables, sometime in an outdoor pavilion, for the ritual “dinner on the ground.” There are variations of this pattern, but the overall pattern is fairly consistent.

Out of Conflict, New Customs Emerge
A variant form of Decoration Day emerged in the North Shore region of Great Smoky Mountains National Park – the region lying north of Fontana Lake. As Fontana Dam was completed, hundreds of families were removed in 1943 and 1944 from the valley of the Little Tennessee River and the creeks flowing down from the Smokies. The land was transferred to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The only consolation for the departing families was a plan, formally agreed to by local, state, and federal governments, to build a new road through the North Shore region after World War II, providing access both for park visitors and for the displaced families to decorate the region’s 27 cemeteries.

The new road was begun, but construction ceased in the 1960s. Because the road extends through a tunnel, then abruptly stops on the other side, some wag dubbed it the Road to Nowhere, and the name stuck. A protest movement arose in 1978, pressing the park to provide access to the cemeteries, most of which had been abandoned by the park to gradual reforestation. A well publicized and successful decoration group crossed the lake in boats to decorate Cable Cemetery. The grassroots movement forced the park’s hand, and soon the park was restoring overgrown cemeteries, providing boats, and supplying other help. Within a few years, all the cemeteries had been repaired, and nearly every spring and summer Sunday now has a scheduled North Shore decoration.

North Shore decorations differ from classic decorations in two ways. First, park rangers do the maintenance work once done by community members, though decorating graves with flowers is left to community members. Second, the journey to and from the cemetery is usually by boat – a radical new element with ancient mythic associations (crossing bodies of water from the secular into the sacred world).

Slideshow of Decoration Day photographs

by Karen Singer Jabbour

Decoration Day beyond Appalachia
People have decorated graves from time immemorial. But similar customs like the Day of the Dead in Mexico have one fundamental difference. They are on a fixed day, whereas the Southern Decoration Day falls on different Sundays for different cemeteries, enabling people to attend multiple decorations. The evidence points to the development of Decoration Day as an American Protestant tradition – specifically a Southern American tradition.

Two historical events indicate that Decoration Day is at least as old as the Civil War. In 1865 the African American community in Charleston, South Carolina, reburied Union soldiers originally buried in a mass grave, then held a service on the site with spiritual singing, speeches and preaching, and Union soldiers marching. The event was reported in Charleston and northern newspapers, and some historians today cite it as “the first Decoration Day.” In 1866 a decoration in Blandford Cemetery in Petersburg, Virginia, commemorated Confederate dead buried or reburied there. Organized by the Ladies Memorial Association, it was held again in 1867 and annually thereafter.

The Petersburg model seems to have inspired the northern Decoration Day, which became the national Memorial Day. General John A. Logan was commanding general for the Grand Army of the Republic – the Union veterans. His wife, Mary Logan, visited Blandford Church in early 1868. Passing through the cemetery, she was touched by the sight of flowers and tiny flags on the Confederate soldiers’ graves. After she described it to her husband, he issued a general order instructing Union veterans to decorate the graves of fallen comrades on May 30. Thus Memorial Day was inspired by the southern Decoration Day but refocused on the fallen in battle.

A Philadelphia newspaper proclaimed General Logan’s order an inappropriate imitation of a Rebel custom. A Richmond newspaper responded that the northern Decoration Day was “a miserable mockery and burlesque upon a holy and sacred institution, peculiar to Southern people.” Both comments support the existence of the southern Decoration Day before the Civil War, as does one fascinating geographic detail. Decoration Day is a national holiday in Liberia, which was settled before the Civil War by former American slaves. It has no trace of the northern Memorial Day’s focus on wartime deaths or the freeing of the slaves. It is about cleaning the graves and honoring one’s ancestors, like the southern Decoration Day that seems to be its source.

Westward from the Appalachians to the plains, Decoration Day is a widespread rural custom. A map of Decoration Day coincides with the nineteenth-century migration pattern westward from the Appalachians. It is surprising that a cultural tradition so widespread and so meaningful to its practitioners is so little noticed. Encyclopedias and other reference works ignore the southern Decoration Day. Those few acknowledging it sometimes suggest that it is an offshoot of the post-Civil War northern custom. Others confuse it with the Confederate Memorial Day observances declared by southern states after the Civil War. The southern Decoration Day differs from, but seems to be the source for, both the northern and the Confederate Memorial Days.

The cemetery, seen as an integrated whole on or after Decoration Day in the Appalachians, is a compelling panoramic canvas – a strikingly beautiful folk art created by communities together over time. We hope that the words and photographs of our book will convey to others what we experienced attending decorations and visiting Appalachian cemeteries – a sense of the decorated cemetery as a folk art capable of breathtaking beauty and expressing powerfully the deepest values of Appalachian culture.

–Alan Jabbour and Karen Singer Jabbour
Washington, D.C.
authors of Decoration Day in the Mountains: Traditions of Cemetery Decoration in the Southern Appalachians
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One Comment

  1. Thank you for this. It is a much better history of Decoration Day than I have found elsewhere on the Web.

    It’s how I remember Decoration Day in West Virginia … the really ancient Appalachian/Southern tradition of my childhood.

    We always went to family graves in the surrounding area at the end of May to clean up the winter’s damage, cut the grass off the graves, and leave fresh flowers. We also checked all of the gravestones to make sure they were still standing. Many of these graves were ancient. My family had been in the region since around 1790. I remember going with my parents and my grandfather and Grandad would always tell me who was buried in each grave and a little of their history. At 74 years of age I still remember all of those visits very clearly.

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