As Halloween draws to a close tonight attention will turn to Los Dias de los Muertas. Marigolds, paper mache calavera masks, candles, pan de muerto, tobacco, liquor, photographs, fruit, and sweets will adorn home altars and cleaned, painted and decorated cemetery graves. A few days ago, my friend Mark posted photos of freshly crafted sugar skulls to his Facebook profile. He lives in Charlotte, NC where the folks at Pura Vida Worldly Art are gearing up for a celebration to welcome the returning souls of the dead with art & music. With the Hispanic/Latino population growing faster in much of the South than anywhere else in the United States I have wondered for a while if Day of the Dead traditions have migrated along with our “new” neighbors over the years. The concept is, afterall, not really that foreign to the region to begin with…
photo credit here and below: Karen Singer Jabbour – click image for more info
The Driveby Truckers released an album called Decoration Day in 2003 but I had no idea what those words meant until I met Mrs. Bobbye Wade of Old Dora, a defunct mining town about 30 miles NW of Birmingham, AL. I had visited Old Dora in late spring and noticed that the graves in the cemetery on the hill above town were decorated with bunches of brightly colored plastic flowers. She explained that Decoration Day has just passed.
There is some debate about the who, what, when and where in regards to the history of Decoration Day but below is a remembrance that Bobbye has been kind enough to share:
In the South, Decoration Day is a day of Remembrance. The graveyard or cemetery had to look nice for Decoration Day. It was a matter of pride and duty for the people of Scotch/Irish, Scottish, Irish, English and German descent who had migrated into the hills and mountains of the Old South.
On a designated day, families would arrive at the graveyard with shovels, hoes, and rakes which they used to remove unwanted grass and weeds and to mound up the graves. Some families brought clean sand to spread on the cleaned graves. Many graves only had a rock at the foot and head as markers. Some had stone houses/boxes built over them and some had tent-shaped structures of stones/rocks covering them. I was told it was to keep wild animals from digging into the graves.
The families would stop for a bite of lunch and reminisce about those who had gone on before. They also caught up on who had married since last year, died or had a baby. There was a lot of whispering going on about family secrets that no one dared say aloud. The women would discuss what they were bringing for the dinner on the ground.
Usually, the biggest Decoration Day was the 2nd Sunday in May which was also Mother’s Day. The families dressed in their finest Sunday clothes. That was the day that the local churches would have the largest number in attendance for the whole year.
The families arrived early Sunday morning to place the flowers on the graves before Church services began. The Mother was a walking “oral Historian” and she could identify every grave. Many of the Mothers would bring baskets of flowers from their gardens. She and the children would place flowers on forgotten graves .Then the whole family would file into the church building and fill up a whole row. Sometimes, there would be as many as five generations on a given row. Flowers would be given to the oldest mother and the youngest mother in attendance. Also, there were flowers for the mother that had the most children and for the mother that had the most children in attendance with her.
After the preaching service ended, the people would file out of the church, the men would set up rows of makeshift tables, and the ladies would spread table clothes over them. With those in place, the ladies would load the table down with fried chicken, chicken and dressing, chicken stew, baked ham, fried country ham, fried pork chops, kraut and wieners, peas, beans, creamed corn, corn on the cob, fried okra, boiled okra, collard greens, turnip greens, mashed potatoes, boiled potatoes, carrots and peas, potato salad, Jello salad, pickled beets, pickled peaches, spiced apples, banana pudding, peach cobbler, blackberry cobbler, apple pie, pecan pie, chocolate pie, lemon pie, coconut cake, chocolate cake, caramel cake and iced tea by the gallons. You can see why it was called a “groaning board” but mostly it was the people who overindulged that were groaning.
That was Decoration Day until a few years. After World War II, when everyone was able to buy a car, things started changing…People moved away from the community. Very few people still clean their family plots. Now there is perpetual care. The Veterans of Foreign Wars come in early, salute each veteran’s grave and place an American Flag on his/her grave. A lot of families place the flowers on the graves on Saturday evening. Those who live far away send money to family members to buy flowers or hire a florist to decorate the grave.
Very few people come for the morning church service and dinner on the ground is a thing of the past. Families meet at the cemetery, place their flowers on the graves, find a restaurant that is open or go to Mother’s house and have lunch. Then they regroup, go back to the cemetery, claim a spot of ground, and set up their chairs and umbrellas. Some of the people will drift away and visit other families that are doing the same type activity. Some people roam the whole cemetery, looking at the flowers and visiting with people along the way.
Decoration Day is a day of remembrance, honoring the dead and getting reacquainted with our past.