Women decorating graves in Harkeys Valley. Photo by Bryan Moats. Circa 2009.
May is the month of Decoration Days, the time of year when people from around the area visit area cemeteries to tend to the graves and decorate their loved one’s resting places with vibrant flowers. For many people Decoration Day was this past weekend, Mother’s Day. For others Decoration Day takes place this weekend or the next. When I first started writing the Seed and the Story column back in May of 2011, I began with a piece on Decoration Days, musing on how, as a child, Decoration Days helped me to conceptualize the importance of intergenerational connections. Although the events only took place once a year, they left a huge impression on me and formed much of the foundation that fuels my work today.
Here’s a snippet from that first column years ago: “As I grew older and became increasingly interested in living traditions and oral histories, I began to love Decoration Days as a time for family to come together and recognize those we’d lost who helped to create the community we called home. In my adult mind the once mythical figures became real people—-people who built houses, labored in the cotton fields, gave birth to babies, trained mule teams, and worked in the chicken plant. I also began to understand that the dead are never really dead. They are always near, affecting our daily lives in countless ways even if we don’t always recognize this.”
Each year as part of our work with the McElroy House: Organization for Cultural Resources and Community Action we put out a call for Decoration Day stories, asking people to share how they celebrate the holiday and how (or how not) the tradition lives on in their communities. While it’s true that Decoration Days used to be much larger events than they are today—complete with dinner on the grounds, sermons, even singing—a visit to any area cemetery this time of year proves the tradition is far from dead. In most cases the tradition looks different than years past, with many people choosing to decorate the graves on Saturday rather than making a community event of the Sunday gathering. Yet each cemetery in the area seems to retain an official Decoration Day falling somewhere in the month of May. By that afternoon the newer graves are sure to be covered in bright, spring colors as if the dead were only recently buried. And that’s the thing about traditions: they’re ever-changing, growing, fading, re-surging, and responding to our current culture. Change is part of what keeps traditions alive.
Visiting about Decoration Days in Harkey Valley Cemetery. Yell County, Arkansas.
Responding to our requests for Decoration Days stories on facebook, Joanna McElroy Corder of Conway shared this story of Decoration Days that speaks to the ever changing nature of the tradition. “Every year my Mother and I would gather up the flowers she had gotten and off we would go..headed for Havana, this was our first stop,” she writes. After a stop in Havana they’d head to Magazine Mountain to put flowers on the Hunnicutt side of the family and clean up the graves, making sure there was no grass on the graves. “After we finished our decorating, we would always go visit Aunt Dora. Ahe lived just outside Paris and was Mother’s aunt, the last of the family of my Grandmother’s, the Hunnicutt’s,” she explains. “She lived to be 106.” Corder says she remembers these as “wonderful memories that I will never forget.”
Like so many people we’ve talked to about Decoration Days, for Corder the day was about connecting with cousins, aging relatives, and talking about those who had come before. In many cases Decoration Days were community homecomings, with relatives visiting towns where their elders lived and reconnecting with distant relatives. “It seems that after my generation, this could be the end of decoration habits,” Corder adds, noting that her children aren’t as interested in these traditions and “that will be ok too.”
How do you celebrate Decoration Day? Please visit me online at boileddownjuice.com to see links to past columns and stories on Decoration Days in the area. If you’re interested in sharing your Decoration Day stories, we’d love to hear them and keep record of them via the McElroy House: Organization for Cultural Resources and Community Action. Thanks so much for reading!
Harkey Valley Cemetery
Harkey Valley Cemetery
Past Columns on Decoration Days
Visiting Decoration Days: A Pilgrimage from California to Arkansas
To Needmore Cemetery (an update)
Seeking Meaning in Decoration Days Past, Present and Future
Original Decoration Day Column