Fran Troxler: Decoration Days observed in the mountains

Jul. 07, 2013 @ 05:50 PM

A speaker at the ribbon-cutting of the new bridge on the Foothills Parkway joked about talking to a local in WalMart. The speaker stated that two-thirds of the folks who live in our area are from other places.

The local man answered back, “Yep. It’s hard to hear an East Tennessee accent here in WalMart anymore.” I agree with them. While I am friends with many locals here in Sevier County, I would venture to say that I know more people who are from elsewhere.

As one of those from “elsewhere,” I have been observing the annual ritual of “Decoration Day” at several of the church and community cemeteries. This is another East Tennessee custom with which most “elsewhere” folks are not familiar held throughout late May and June.

Pastor Preston Joslin and his wife Kathy (Valley View Baptist Church) were both reared in Sevier County, and they say, “It’s just something we’ve always done.” Mike McCarter, another local, describes the Decoration Day (really weekend) as a community reunion of sorts.

If you have loved ones buried in a cemetery, then on the designated “Decoration Day” weekend, you bring fresh flowers/arrangements which are blanketed upon family members’ graves. I had thought of this occasion as perhaps a “Clean Up, Fix Up” of the cemetery, but after taking a walk through the Valley View Baptist Church cemetery the week after Decoration Day, I found that it is much more than that.

This is literally a “decoration” event. Most of the graves in the cemetery are covered from headstone to bottom of plot with flowers, both fresh and artificial. The grave plots are truly decorated entirely from top to bottom. And just in case you worry that some poor soul is overlooked because his family members are far away, be sure that someone will take care of that grave, too. All graves are lovingly decorated at this event.

Because the family members are coming in and out of the cemetery all weekend long, usually the “cemetery committee” members are on hand to collect donations for the upkeep of the cemetery for the next year. According to Mike McCarter, folks are quite generous in providing the funds for the upkeep of the cemeteries.

Within a week or two after “Decoration Day” many family members come back and take the flowers off the graves. This is so the caretaker for the cemetery doesn’t have to do that. Many, of course, will perhaps leave an arrangement on the headstone, but that is all.

When I walked through the Valley View Baptist Church cemetery, Mr. and Mrs. Joe Cooper were there picking up the artificial flowers they had put on several family members’ graves. They had two large plastic containers which they used to store the flowers throughout the year. When “Decoration Day” comes around, they have their flowers to put out, and then when it is over, they pick them up and store them away for the next year.

I did read up on the origins of Decoration Day" I thought it might have something to do with Memorial Day, but although some are held during the Memorial Day weekend, that holiday honoring our military deceased is not really the reason. And it wasn’t necessarily started by either northern or southern families after the Civil War.

I did find that Decoration Day is observed primarily through East Tennessee and parts of the rural South. Those parts seem to be in the hills of those states, though, and not too much farther.

No matter the origins, Decoration Day is another regional custom which I hope does not die out (no pun intended). To honor your deceased loved ones through such an event is touching. It gives you reason to take your younger children to the cemetery and discuss your family roots.

You can reach back in time, stand in the present, and project into the future. You can also say hello to some friends and family which you may not have seen in a while.

— Fran Troxler lives and works in Wears Valley. Her column will appear from time to time. She is the owner of East Tennessee Realty Group. Email to Fran@EastTnExperts.com.