What we now call Memorial Day was once called Decoration Day.
It was called Decoration Day because of the custom of laying flowers on—decorating—the graves of lost loved ones. Our federal holiday, Memorial Day, is designated to remembering veterans and military members who have passed, but the Decoration Day of my childhood was a day to come together at a small country church in West Tennessee, eat lunch “on the grounds,” and then visit the adjacent cemetery where our great aunts and uncles and great grandparents were buried. We came to lay flowers on their graves.
Some of my earliest and fondest childhood memories are of Decoration Day.
Attendance at the church service was always greater than usual on Decoration Day. Even our family seldom attended church there anymore, having moved to a larger more modern church in the nearby town of Martin. But the opportunity to gather with friends and family to honor the dead was a call to many of the church’s past members. And so we came, on the third Sunday of each May, to decorate our family’s graves.
My Family Traditions
My grandmother was still living, as were most of her siblings and in-laws and cousins, so the graves we tended to were the graves of her parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Her husband, who died much too young from leukemia, was buried there as well, and his gravestone bore not only his name and the dates of his birth and his death, but the name and birth date of my grandmother. She knew exactly where her final resting place would be. All we would have to do when the time came is to have the date of her death engraved on the existing headstone.
My grandmother grew peonies at her house, and so we took bodacious bouquets of peonies to the cemetery on Decoration Day. Beautiful, huge, white fluffy peonies make a traditional and dramatic statement: The person laid here was dearly loved!
While the adults visited and gossiped and reminisced with each other, we kids ran and played and re-visited the buffet table. Laden with only the best homemade favorite foods of each and every family, it was a banquet! Green beans, turnip greens, fried chicken, mashed potatoes! Banana pudding, chocolate pie and beautiful yellow sponge cake! It was here that I learned to love chess pie. If you don’t know chess pie, hit me up and I’ll share the simple recipe! It’s a country delight!
Keeping our Family Traditions
Today, my grandmother is buried there beside her husband, and my dad is there too. Like her mother before her, Mom had her name and date of birth engraved on my dad’s new headstone so that we have little to do when her time comes. We don’t go back every year, but we go back often. These days the dinner on the grounds consists more of store-bought fried chicken and pizza and cookies. With Covid in the air, we don’t see the need to eat the food that other people may or may not have cooked. But we bring flowers and stand around the graves of the people we have lost and we reminisce and acknowledge how much we miss them all. Each new child and grandchild is soon taken to the cemetery so those who have passed on can meet them, and so that the little ones always remember.
Thank you for making us who we are.
On Decoration Day, we remember our lost and beloved family members who went before us. They made us who we are today. Our flowers lain there show our appreciation for who they were.