Decoration Day in the South

Curtis Varnell, PhD.
Decoration Day is a day to remember those who have gone before us.

People start gathering early in the morning, walking up the hillsides, leaving their offering of flowers and memorials on each of the gravesites. Families stand around and talk quietly, remembering those loved ones who have gone on before. Soon the cemeteries abound in splashes of yellow, red, blue and green, symbolizing that spring has arrived and with it the hope of rebirth of life.

Alien to most people outside of the Deep South, Decoration Day is celebrated annually by most people in Arkansas. It is a day when families meet at the family gravesites, clean up the cemetery, reconnect with family members, and honor the memories of their ancestors. Because many families have relatives buried at different cemeteries, it is common to hold the event on varying Sundays throughout the month of May, culminating on Memorial Day when we remember the war dead of our nation. At our family cemetery, Hickory Grove, the event always coincides with Mother’s Day.

As a child, we spent days prior to our Decoration Day making flowers of strips of wire and toilet tissue which is folded back into petals. We used dyes and made them in various colors. My grandmother could take crepe paper and make roses more beautiful than those found in nature. We also picked live bouquets and placed in baskets to add even more color.

On Decoration Day, the entire family gathered early and placed the flowers. We then visited other families and people as they arrived. Some relatives made annual treks from out-of-state homes just for this reunion and remembrance. People milled around sharing conversation and catching up on family news. Kids ran to and fro, chasing each other, while carefully avoiding the taboo act of stepping on a grave.

At 10 a.m., we gathered under the spreading limbs of the oak and hickory trees. Church hymnals were passed out to the crowd and people joined in as we sang old-time gospel songs like “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder,” "I’ll Fly Away" and others. Devout and sinners alike stood respectfully and silent as the Rev. Gorman Daniel brought the message of remembrance and redemption to the crowd. Looking every part of the ideal minister with his silver hair and stately manner, his deep voice would echo off the surrounding hillsides. He would remind us of our culture, our heritage, and our faith.

Afterward, families would travel to nearby homes for family gatherings or picnics. Wonderful family times and memories. As Decoration Day approaches, let us never forget those who have gone before us and set the path for our future generations.