A century ago this weekend, you would have found everybody out in the graveyard. Folks would have been doing lawn work, cleaning and repairing monuments, planting and arranging flowers, visiting, gossiping, courting, listening to sermons and songs, and picnicking on the grounds.
Traditionally, the last Sunday in May was Decoration Day, a day devoted to remembering all of a community’s dead and honoring them by tending their final resting places. The holiday of Memorial Day, for honoring the nation’s war dead, was grafted onto the older tradition after the Civil War but didn’t really replace it until after World War II. The present day observance of going to the beach or a barbecue instead of a graveyard and remembering the beer comes later.
Decoration Day was a joyous occasion. Not somber or gloomy. It had the character of a big family reunion. People would travel long distances to return to the family seat and remember their forebears. While their parents tended the graves, children would play, young couples would take private walks, and the elderly would tell the old stories and go through the genealogies. At the end of the day there would be a sermon and songs like “I’ll Fly Away” and “In The Sweet By and By” then a big picnic feast of fried chicken and country ham followed by pies and cakes washed down with ice water and lemonade.
Everyone went home having reconnected to the living and the departed and knowing that—when their time came—they wouldn’t be alone and they wouldn’t be forgotten.
We don’t do this anymore.