It’s Memorial Day, a day to remember and celebrate all of those brave people who lost their lives defending our freedom. Prior to being declared a federal holiday back in 1971, Memorial Day was often referred to as Decoration Day and has it’s own roots and even a particular set of customs, dating back more than a century. Historically it is thought the first commemoration of this day was organized by a group of freed slaves in Charleston, South Carolina – less than a month after the Confederacy surrendered in 1865. A year later, in 1866, the town of Waterloo, New York began the tradition of hosting an annual event which was celebrated by the entire community. Businesses closed in honor of the day and residents decorated the graves of soldiers with wreaths, flowers and flags.
On May 5, 1868, General John A. Logan, who lead an organization for Northern Civil War veterans, decided a nationwide day of remembrance was in order. Logan proclaimed, “The 30th of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land.” During that first “official” celebration, Ohioan James Garfield who was a Union Major General during the Civil War, and at that time, a sitting Ohio Congressman made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery to a crowd of 5,000 onlookers. After the speech, participants helped to decorate the graves of the more than 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers who were buried there.
These days, Memorial Day is celebrated on the last Monday in May while the lesser known Decoration Day seems to be primarily held on the first Sunday in June and is relegated mostly to areas of Appalachia and the South. Visiting cemeteries or memorials holds a special place in the heart of Appalachians and Southerners (I can certainly attest to both).
The customs surrounding Decoration Day have deep roots in local traditions and vary from community to community. On Decoration Day it is not uncommon to see loved ones of the deceased gathered in the graveyard around headstones and even having picnics next to family graves, this is often referred to as “Dinner on the Ground.” There is also a tradition of cleaning and decoration of the headstone at this time. If the grave is mounded, a remounding may also occur, adding fresh rocks as well some landscaping. Flowers are also an important factor during Decoration Day as well as some ritualistic elements, like leaving grave tokens for your loved one. If you’ve ever seen a small town cemetery during this time it is truly a sight to behold. You will immediately know this is a very important day, as nearly every single headstone is decorated to the nines.
Jabbour, Alan and Karen. Decoration Day in the Mountains: Traditions of Cemetery Decoration in the Southern Appalachians. 2010. The University of North Carolina Press