Seeking Meaning in Decoration Days, Past and Future

Decoration Days in Harkey Valley Cemetery, 2009.

Decoration Days in Harkey Valley Cemetery, 2009.

Throughout the month of May people will take part in the tradition of Decoration Days, a time to come together to decorate the graves of loved ones.  According to many historians, the holiday began in connection with Memorial Day as a way to honor the huge numbers of Civil War dead, many of who were never properly buried. If you’re familiar with this column you may recall previous pieces about the living tradition of Decoration Days in this area.

Historian David W. Blight recently uncovered documentation of one of the first documented Decoration Days, which took place in Charleston, South Carolina near a planter’s racetrack that had been converted into an outdoor prison. Beginning May 1st 1865, Blight explains, freed slaves “conducted a series of commemorations to declare their sense of the meaning of the war.” They came together to properly bury the Union dead and organized a processional which included African American soldiers, over three thousand black school children, and both black and white citizens carrying flowers, crosses, and wreathes to honor the countless dead. For years this event went unacknowledged in the city’s official history until Blight’s recent research (read more here).

Throughout the nation communities developed their own traditions surrounding Decoration Day and eventually the event grew to include honoring all dead with cemetery clean up, dinner on the grounds, singing, visiting, and a yearly homecoming for families and friends. Some cemeteries still host community gatherings, whereas at other cemeteries people come throughout the day to leave their flowers. In the past people decorated with fresh flowers, but today prearranged synthetics are the norm. If you’ve ever visited a cemetery at the end of Decoration Day, you’re familiar with how the gray and black tombstones get lost in the sea of bright flowers. In a culture so fearful of death, Decoration Days can offer us a much-needed space to talk openly about the passage of time, the fragility of life, and the continuity of community stories.

Needmore Cemetery, Decoration Day May 2012. Photo by Karen Alexander-Stoeckel.

Needmore Cemetery, Decoration Day May 2012. Photo by Karen Alexander-Stoeckel.

It might seem on the surface that Decoration Days are solely about honoring the dead. However, having spoken to numerous people about the ways in which they celebrate Decoration Days, it seems to me the event is about living fully in the present. It’s a way to openly acknowledge the dead are never far from us and influence our lives in countless ways. When people come together to collectively decorate graves, there’s the possibility that this joint effort can cut through the isolation that often encompasses loss, reminding us that death is universal and keeping alive the stories of the dead doesn’t have to be about living in the past. Rather it can be a way to weave the information of the past into a stronger future, keeping stories alive for future generations so they can understand where they’ve come from and make conscious decisions about where they want to go.

Do you take part in Decoration Days? How do you celebrate the holiday? Do you use fresh flowers or silk? Do you make your own wreaths? Perhaps you celebrate with dinner on the grounds or community gatherings. Who taught you about this holiday and why does it matter to you? I’d love to hear your stories. Below you can read past columns about this holiday, including last year’s, which featured a woman from California who made a pilgrimage to Arkansas to celebrate Decoration Day in honor of her father, by visiting me online at www.boileddownjuice.com. Thanks so much for reading.

Planning a Pilgrimage from California to Arkansas for Decoration Day. 2012 

An Update on the Pilgrimage, 2012

Decoration Day column from 2012

Photos from Decoration Days, 2011

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The Seed and the Story is a partnership with theCourier and Post Dispatch newspapers in Pope and Yell County, Arkansas. This weekly column explores folklife, oral history, and community in central Arkansas, particularly the Yell County area where the column originates. Columns are often written in partnership with the McElroy House: Organization for Folklife, Oral History, and Community Action and humbly attempt to bridge intergenerational themes in the region.