A cool morning mist drifts through the valley, expanding into gentle banks of fog as it rises up the mountainside. Trees are just beginning to flower, and the dogwood is in full bloom. Family groups begin to gather on the hillside, talking quietly as they place wreaths and flowers on the graves of departed loved ones. It's Decoration Day in the South.
No one knows exactly when the tradition began, but it predates the national Memorial Day which was created after the Civil War to remember those that preceded us. Thought to be a product of Scotch-Irish origin, Decoration Day brings together family for a day to establish spiritual connections between those living and earlier generations. Decoration Day falls on different dates for different cemeteries or groups but generally it's one Sunday during the month of May. In the week previous to the event, the cemetery has been cleaned, mowed, and prepared for the special day.
When the day arrives, family members "decorate" the graves by placing mementos, flowers or wreaths on the grave sites. In my family, sometimes days or weeks were spent in constructing the special arrangements from tissue paper, crepe paper, or artificial flowers. People sit around in lawn chairs or stand in small groups, reconnecting to the past. No one sits on the grave stones or stands on the grave mounds; that is disrespectful and would bring bad luck. In nearly all instances, Civil War markers for Southerners are topped by points or spikes, while Union markers are rounded. The common reasoning for the difference? According to Southerners, "those Yankees have no manners, but one thing I can dang well be sure of; they will not sit on my grave!!"
Mid-morning, time is called, and everyone gathers around a pavilion or special meeting place. Traditional hymns are sung, followed by a sermon reminding family of their past and of their spiritual roots. Many of the families then have their own gatherings, an opportunity for members to reconnect and repeat old stories of times gone by.
I look around the cemetery. My grandmother is buried over there. I used to spend every weekend possible at her house. She would play baseball with us kids, teach us to cook, and was such an influence on my life. There lies my uncle William. He was a true outdoorsman and hunter. My friend Rickey is buried over there. I remember him jumping off the bluff at the half-bushel swimming hole. Old memories that return each time I visit the cemetery! I tell those that lose family and friends that their loved ones are never gone as long as we hold dear to the memories of their lives. Those remind us of the contributions, the joy, and impact that they had on us, the living.
No matter the Sunday or date Memorial Day falls on, take time to remember those who have gone before and to commemorate their lives. It's also a great time to reconnect with family, friends, and those with whom we share God's greatest gift, life.