Decoration: A tradition in Appalachia


What could be better than a picnic on a small patch of green grass on a sunny May day?

How about if that family feast was on a mere few feet from a headstone?

It sounds weird to anyone from other parts of the country. But it happens just about every weekend in May in many areas of the South, including our part of Alabama.

It is called Decoration Day. During the few years that I recently lived Mississippi, I realized the tradition did not make it that far west. Those folks had no idea how much fun they were missing.

Decoration Day (also known as simply Decoration or Homecoming) is a late spring tradition that involves cleaning community cemeteries and decorating them with flowers. The festivities usually also include a singing/church service and lots of food, which was sometimes eaten in the graveyard and known as "dinner on the ground."

I have some pretty vivid childhood memories of Decoration at the cemetery, where many of my family members are buried.

Dilworth Cemetery is adjacent to Dilworth Church of God, which is the church I attended from birth until I was 17. The day would start early in the morning, with my mother informing my brother and me that we had to dress up. Decoration came in a close second to Easter as far as times that called for our absolute Sunday best. After dressing us up like a couple of young, Southern gentlemen (hats were usually included), our family would attend our regularly scheduled church service. If you are familiar with Pentecostal churches, you will realize that could take a while. Pew jumping, shouting and people passing out "slain in the spirit" were a normal Sunday, but things could get super-charged on Decoration.

After a few hours in the church, we would all head outside for lunch. Typically, the meal would be a potluck because everyone shared dishes. My grandmother was pretty much a local celebrity due to her chicken and dressing. We would make our plates and eat together as a family. Our bunch never took it as far as actually sitting at the gravesite, but I have seen plenty of others who did.

The best thing about Decoration at our church is the fact that a guy who owned a local snow cone shack had family members buried there. He would bring his mobile snowmaker and give out frozen treats to all of us children. After finishing our meals, my brother and I would always eat a snow cone and then join up with some friends for a game of graveyard football.

When everyone had finished eating, it was time to go back inside the church for a special singing. As a small child, I would usually take a nap under a pew. As I grew, I listened to the music and struck up a game of Hangman or Tic-Tac-Toe with whichever friend was sitting beside me.

What is neat about Decoration Day is that the celebration is different depending on the cemetery where it is being held. Every community has its own traditions.

My wife said she never experienced snow cones and graveyard football. She said her grandparents would lead the family around the cemetery and point out different headstones, informing the group how they were related to each person. 

Decorations are basically a big family reunion of sorts. One common thread between my family and Andrea's family is that kinfolk who do not show up for Decoration were always talked about in a negative light. There was also a lot of work that would go into preparing for Decoration Day. I have only mentioned memories of the actual event. On the day before the event is when family members would go to the cemetery to mow grass, clean up and place the flowers.

In recent years, Decorations have continued in our part of Alabama and up through a good portion of the Appalachian Region, but they are not the mega events they were in the past. As time has passed, families have moved from those small communities. My parents' generation has felt the need to continue decorations, but they do not have the same passion about it as their parents had. That passion has decreased even further with my generation. Decoration Day may soon be a thing of the past.

Even though I have always found it to be an odd event, I do hate my kids will not have some of those same strange memories that I have.

James Phillips is editor and publisher of the Daily Mountain Eagle. He may be reached at