Decoration Day is an annual observance at many privately owned southern graveyards during which families gather to clean up the graveyard, reconnect with family, and honor the memories of their ancestors. In Alabama, this tradition is generally strongest among rural white communities in the northern part of the state. Decoration Day is most often associated with community-based cemeteries, some of which are associated with a local church. Some family cemeteries on old farmsteads also host a Decoration Day. In contrast, corporate-owned cemeteries, military cemeteries, or municipal cemeteries have regular maintenance and other rituals of holiday observance.
Sand-covered Graves Traditionally, Decoration Day is in part a ritual, with families arriving on the day before Decoration Sunday with hoes and shovels for a graveyard workday. They scrape the ground, trim the grass, make new plantings, and prune old ones. In more recent years, the older traditions of mounded graves and scraped, grassless ground (characteristic of what scholars refer to as the Upland South Cemetery Complex) are maintained at only a very few old graveyards. The cleanup is followed by a Sunday picnic dinner, singing in church, placing flowers on graves, and visiting with friends and family. Sunday participants come dressed for church and participate in what amounts to a family and community reunion. Families that have moved away often return on this day, giving them an important opportunity to teach children about their ancestors and the communities in which they once lived. Outdoor tables of concrete or wood, marked to identify participating churches, hold the food for the meal.
Sometimes the terms “Decoration Day” and “Homecoming” are used synonymously. Homecoming, however, is more typically the equivalent of a founder’s day for individual churches. The term appears to be more commonly used to describe similar activities in the southern portion of the state and among African American communities throughout the state, where the focus is less on the cemetery and more on food and social activities.
Decoration Day, ca. 1905 The exact origins of Decoration Day are unclear, although traditions of eating in cemeteries and decorating graves are found in other cultures. The tradition seems to predate Memorial Day (once known as Decoration Day) and Confederate Memorial Day, both of which have a military focus. At some point, the warm months between March and September became the preferred season for commemorating the dead among southerners. These months are the slower period in the agricultural year, between planting and harvest, so more people were available to help with cemetery maintenance. In addition, American Protestants may have consciously chosen a cemetery memorial holiday apart from the Catholic All Souls Day on November 2, which also features floral decorations and feasting. The availability of fresh flowers also may have been a reason to select the early summer season. Because the date, usually reckoned by a particular Sunday in a particular month, varies by cemetery, families can easily participate in several Decoration Days in their region.
Decoration Day at Bivens Chapel Cemetery In recent decades, participants in Decoration Day activities have focused less on graveyard maintenance and more on social activities as the dispersal of families from rural Alabama has diminished both the attendance for Decoration Day and the availability of a nearby workforce. As a result, communities have established cemetery committees, often with perpetual care endowments, to handle maintenance costs. These committees, although necessary, have given decision-making power to fewer people and thus graveyard landscapes are not the community creations they once were. Maintenance concerns have changed the appearance of the graveyards, most notably in the use of lawn grass and the institution of restrictions on decorations aimed at making mowing easier. In most cases, these rules run counter to traditional ideas about graveyard appearance, such as grave mounding, scraping the ground, and planting ornamental shrubs, trees, and flowers. Some cemeteries allow sand to be dumped and spread to imitate the scraped, grassless look. Despite the use of hired landscaping crews and the imposition of restrictions, many families still come out on Saturday because they enjoy putting their own finishing touches around their ancestors’ graves.
The changes that have occurred in Decoration Day in Alabama derive from technological, economic, and demographic changes. Commercial cemeteries, which increased in popularity during the twentieth century, have contractual maintenance agreements, and thus are not conducive to Decoration Day activities. Despite these changes, the occasion remains a popular and joyful observance in many Alabama communities. Bivins Cemetery and Mount Olive Cemetery in Jefferson County, for instance, are the scene of popular Decoration Days, as is Little Hurricane Church in Brookwood, Tuscaloosa County.
- Ball, Donald B. “Social Activities Associated with Two Rural Cemeteries in Coffee County, Tennessee.” Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin 41 (September 1975): 93-98.
- Jabbour, Alan, Philip E. Coyle, and Paul Webb. North Shore Cemetery Decoration Project Report. National Park Service, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, 2005.
- Jeane, Donald Gregory. “Cemeteries.” In The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, edited by Charles Reagan Wilson and William Ferris, pp. 106–109. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.
- ———. “The Upland South Cemetery: An American Type.” Journal of Popular Culture 11 (Spring 1978): 895-903.
- Jordan, Terry G. Texas Graveyards: A Cultural Legacy. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982.