by Jay Grelen

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette


Every May, like he has since he was knee-high to a tombstone, 39-year-old Donald Morris drives the two miles to the Anderson Flat Cemetery to clean graves and lay fresh silk flowers on them. Or in the parlance of the day, to decorate the graves.  Morris can’t even count the number of relatives buried at Anderson Flat, near the Searcy County town of Pindall.  "We have five or six generations," says Morris, who buried his father there in April.

Like spring cleaning at home, Decoration Day is the time to scrape the past year off of a cemetery, to yank up the weeds, to manicure the plots.  In cemeteries like Anderson Flat, Bee Branch, Alpena, Huie and dozens of others, Southerners like Morris keep alive the tradition of remembering those who have died by reuniting at the cemetery with those still alive.


As with all traditions, stories about its origins abound, but the genesis of Decoration Day is clear to folklorist Alan Jabbour, retired director of the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center.  Jabbour, Philip E. "Ted" Coyle, an associate professor of anthropology in North Carolina, and Paul Webb have recently completed a federally commissioned study of Decoration Day in North Carolina.  No question, he says, it’s a Southern thing for which the North takes credit.  Jabbour and his colleagues became experts on the tradition in a round-about way.  Their study was necessary because residents near Fontana Dam in western North Carolina wanted to build a road to 27 cemeteries rendered inaccessible in the 1940s by construction of a dam and a lake. The cemeteries now are part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and environmentalists fear a road will damage the park.

As a stopgap, the National Park Service transports people by boat during the Decoration Day season. Before the government decides to build a road, there has to be an environmental impact study. So the trio produced one, which will be released for public review in the fall. One result of the study is the finding that the tradition of Decoration Day remains strong.

The story of the origins of Decoration Day, and how it has become confused with Memorial Day, involves a Union general, representative of the federal government in the Civil War, the war that led to the need for a Memorial Day in the first place.  Official recognition of the day in the United States, whether you call it Memorial or Decoration, dates to the mid-1860s when the wife of Union Gen. John A. Logan reported to her husband the decorating of graves at a church cemetery in Petersburg, Va.  The general, who was commander in chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, the organization of Union veterans, liked the idea.  So in 1868, Logan proclaimed that the 30th day of May would be set aside to remember the war dead, which eventually led to the national Memorial Day.


Thus many credit Logan, the North and the federal government with the idea.But hold your horses. "The North has always controlled the words," says Jabbour, a native of Jacksonville, Fla. "If you read the encyclopedias, the North gets credit. "Here’s what I think: What came first was an Upland South folk tradition for all the people in the community.  It wasn’t just for the fallen in battle.  It’s like a spring version of the Day of the Dead [in Mexico], communing with the dead. That’s the old tradition."

So the South’s Decoration Day is probably the inspiration for Memorial Day, he says, not the other way around.  "That custom was enforced by Gen. Logan through the Union Army," Jabbour says.  "The South was already doing it.  I’m inclined to think this is kind of an early American tradition, a flower of the early frontier."  The tradition seems to have migrated west from Virginia and the Carolinas as far as Arkansas and may remain the strongest in that belt.  Recognition of the day extends in both directions from the government-sanctioned Memorial Day.  (Some folks argue the federal government ruined it in 1971 by switching the day from May 30 to the last Monday in May to create another three-day holiday weekend).  You could accurately refer to May and June as Decoration Day Season.

Betty Taylor, who sells flowers for Decoration Day at The Golden Dragon in Harrison, says she and her fellow employees start assembling flowers in February. They sell 200 to 250 arrangements each year, many of them "saddles" that rest atop a gravestone.  In April and May, the R&S Floral Co. in Springfield, Mo., opens satellite shops in 15 communities in northern Arkansas and southern Missouri.  The company’s 15 employees spend the entire year making flowers for the season. R&S also sells American and Confederate flags.  The company delivers a trailer full of flowers to its site in Harrison, where Faye McClure arranges them along walls and down aisles. "People, especially in Arkansas and Missouri, make a whole weekend of it," says John Schweke, whose family owns R&S Floral. "You go to the small cemeteries in Arkansas, they have pavilions."Anderson Flat is one of those with a pavilion, but that is a recent addition.

Donald Morris and his sister Brenda recall when they ate potluck lunches at wooden tables under the oaks, in the days before chain-link fence replaced the barbed wire around the cemetery. "We had singing, music, preaching," Morris says. "Guitars. Anybody that could play."

As a child, Vonda Tate of Omaha traveled to Decoration Day by horse-drawn wagon from the family farm in rural Boone County.  "Mom and us girls would gather up flowers," she says.  "If we found wildflowers on the way, we’d gather them up. The men would do the cleaning, the women would decorate the graves."  When she says cleaning, Tate doesn’t mean pulling weeds here and there.  "You really had to hunt to find your own graves. The boys would take a rake, a hoe... and cut brush. Dad would [take] a can of dirt if we needed to fill in around the grave."

Lunch usually was fried chicken, potato salad and her mother’s homemade bread, and they visited several cemeteries.  "We’d have a preacher there," says Tate, 73.  "He’d make a little talk, say a prayer.  Sometimes sing songs.  It helped us.  We felt like we had honored the people who were there." The day is as much family reunion as cemetery cleaning, says Taylor, the flower maker at The Golden Dragon who "cut her teeth" in community cemeteries like Anderson Flat. (She is Donald Morris’ aunt.)  At the end of the day, Taylor says, the cemeteries were beautiful. "There was always a feeling that the cemetery is dressed."

Tate’s husband, Willie, died so recently that many of the flowers from his funeral remain on his grave.  "I haven’t got a rock set up there yet," she says.  "I’ve already bought my flowers to go on it."  Now that Tate’s parents, her husband, her son and most of her siblings have died, she decorates about 40 graves in seven cemeteries. "I spent close to $100," she says.  She also takes flowers to some of the graves at Christmas and to a few on birthdays.


Lynette Collums oversees the Bee Branch Cemetery in Van Buren County, where the cemetery association eliminated the Decoration Day church service for lack of interest.  The people who came were more interested in talking outside the Bee Branch Baptist Church, which is in front of the cemetery.  This year’s Decoration Day attendance, however, was encouraging, she says.  She lives about five minutes from the cemetery, where in the last two years she has buried first her husband Layne and then their son Layne Jr. ‘‘Rusty,’’ a doctor in Vernon, Texas, who died at 60 of a heart attack.  Before Decoration Day, Collums retrieves the old flowers from the graves and places them in a concrete-block bin.  Not every grave, however, is decorated with old flowers; some families never take care of their graves, which worries her for the future of the tradition. 
"It takes maturity for them to realize the heritage they have in a cemetery," she says. "As they get older, maybe.... "


Donald Morris shares Collums’ concern.  On the second weekend in May, Morris and his wife, Erica, took their children Brittany, 14, and Marcus, 3, to clean the cemetery, and the next weekend they attended Decoration.  "We’re trying to teach them," he says, referring to Marcus, who is rattling on to his Aunt Brenda about the snapping turtle across the road, oblivious to the burden of tradition that awaits him.  "Years ago," Morris says, "you couldn’t even find a place to park."

Richard White of Harrison, who owns Lena Frances Flower Shop with his wife, Linda, is a bridge between the old Decoration Day of the rural graveyard and the modern approach in a larger town. "The people of Northwest Arkansas honor their dead and keep their cemeteries nice and mowed," says White, who has Decoration Day arrangements hanging along the stairwell in his Harrison shop and on the floor upstairs.  Even people who have moved away pay attention.  "They’ll write, or they will call and say, ‘What are we going to do this year?’"

In the middle of May, White took me through Harrison’s large Maplewood Cemetery, pointing out the flower saddles he placed on tombstones himself.  He takes pictures of the decorated grave, which he sends to the family.  "Sometimes the florist," he says, "is the only contact some people have with their loved ones."

Decoration Day is important, says Jabbour the folklorist, because it connects the living to their past.  "People stand in the cemetery and are provoked to talk by seeing various graves.  People in the present have a connection to people buried in the ground.  It’s a way to find out more about their history.

"It also creates something beautiful," he says. "It’s quite amazing. It’s doing a lot of very serious things in our culture."  Concern about declining interest may be cause for hope for the tradition. "People worry about that," Jabbour says, "but that’s one of the ways of keeping it alive.  When I hear them worrying about it, it’s oddly reassuring."

This story was published Thursday, May 26, 2005


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