Historically, what we now call Memorial Day was referred to as “Decoration Day”, a day when loved ones visited the graves of fallen soldiers, laying flowers or wreaths. Another commemoration, also called “Decoration Day”, was held (a practice, by the way, which still continues today in certain parts of the country) when church members gathered together for a special time of honoring those loved ones who had passed on.
Although some churches may hold the entire event on Sunday, including the maintenance part, often the Saturday before Decoration Sunday is spent sprucing up the local cemetery or adjacent church burial grounds in preparation for the following day’s commemoration. It might not be quite accurate to refer to the tradition as a “southern thing”, but the tradition is more likely today to be found in the south than anywhere else in the United States. Years ago, it was more widely practiced throughout the country.
In the South there are still many who live and worship in small towns and rural areas, and traditions like this are “followed to the letter” every year. Decoration Day, most often held sometime in May or the summer months, could also take on the air of a church or community reunion. In the Appalachian region it is a long-time cultural tradition.
Because of planting schedules, it was more likely in Appalachia for Decoration Day to be held in mid-June – but really any time between March and September, after seed was in the ground and growing and weather was more pleasant. According to the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage: “It was a betwixt and between time when mountain folk could reflect on their shared family and community heritage. Decoration Day is also a ritual for healing rifts and wounds among living family members.”
In conjunction with Decoration Day, it was not uncommon for an “all-day singing and dinner on the grounds” to be part of the day (more about that church tradition in a future article). In the South and Appalachia, bluegrass tunes like the Lester Flatts song “Bouquet in Heaven” evoked memories of loved ones who had passed, according to Decoration Day In The Mountains by Alan and Karen Jabbour:
When it’s Decoration Day in Heaven
There’s a bouquet I’m longing to see,
There’s a flower somewhere in the bouquet
That means all the world to me.
Now she left the old homeplace is lonely
Since mother has been called away,
And I know I can never more see her
Till we meet on that decoration day.
A Cherokee Nation church in Oklahoma, Belfonte Baptist, still holds an annual Decoration Day on Mother’s Day. The service begins at 10:00 a.m. with a sermon and tributes to both mothers and ancestors buried in the nearby cemetery.
Belfonte Baptist is said to be one of the few churches today that still preach and sing in the Cherokee language, although on Decoration Day English is more often in use for those visiting who don’t understand Cherokee or perhaps no longer utilize the language.
Following the service, members walk to the cemetery while singing Amazing Grace and other hymns until arriving under “the big tree.” After offering prayers and thanksgiving, they disperse and visit family graves.
Whatever an individual church’s tradition might be, the central focus is honoring departed loved ones. However, the idea of Decoration Day being a reunion where friends and family can reconnect, and perhaps heal past wounds, makes the day more special and meaningful.
“Church Traditions” is a new Sunday theme which I’ll write about from time to time on Sundays. Some subjects I have lined up: All-Day Singing and Dinner on the Grounds, Sacred Harp Music, Singing Schools (although not necessarily exclusively a church tradition) and more. If you have a suggestion for a church traditions article, feel free to comment below.
Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!
© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2014.