From Open Roads May, 2010
I may have said in this very paper that my second earliest memory (my first being bustin’ out of my playpen) is this: It’s 1956. I see my great-grandfather, hands folded on his chest, eyes closed, lying peacefully in his casket in my grandparents’ front bedroom. Streams of visitors, family and friends, come by, speaking softly to my grandparents and then quietly move to the bedroom to look at Granddaddy Dan as he lays there. I’m two years old, and I want to climb in and lie down with him in the midst of vibrant bouquets of flowers. I don’t really understand all the unusual activity, but I know that it’s important and that, somehow, it seems to help people not be so sad at Granddaddy’s passing.
I’m a southerner, and this is what we do in the face of death; we send our loved-ones home on the wings of angels, trumpets sounding, tears of grief mingling with tears of joy for knowing they’re in a better place. Sometimes the send-off is a grand production, sometimes it’s small and simple. Though customs have changed over the years, the underlying principle of respecting your dead people hasn’t. Which brings me to Memorial Day.
Officially this holiday commemoratesU.S.men and women who died in military service. Thanks to the 1968 Uniform Holidays Bill that moved President’s Day, Memorial Day, and Veteran’s Day to Monday, making a three-day weekend, we celebrate Memorial Day the last Monday in May. Though the first recorded account of the name “Memorial Day” was in 1886, it didn’t really come into popular usage until after WWII. We know that in 1967 it was declared by this name in Federal law.
Prior to then, it was known as Decoration Day. There are many accounts of how, when, where, and by whom it all began. As I was noodling around on the internet, I began to get a sense that what were being identified as acts of respect for dead soldiers were simply Southerners being Southerners, doing what they’ve always done—honoring their dead people. What stood out at the end of the Civil War was the fact that they were extending the same honor to their enemies. Another form of Southern hospitality, if you will.
This is from the article GONE, BUT NOT FORGOTTEN: FINE SOUTHERN TRADITION OF DECORATION DAY INSPIRED MEMORIAL DAY (by Jay Grelen, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, 2005): “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 inPetersburg, 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.”
There’s no reason to be adversarial—it’s not a contest, and it doesn’t have anything to do with North vs. South. It’s just the way things are done here.
I grew up in a time and place where many of my people (as we say in the South) were interred in family graveyards. When I was a child, we made a pilgrimage every summer toForkMountainfor the Fitzgerald reunion. My grandmother’s oldest brother, who lived in D.C., was the last family member to own the property. It was not far off Rt. 56 where the currentMontebellopost office is located and was still a working farm in that my uncle raised cattle on the several acres of mountain meadowland and kept one of the two houses on the farm set up for his visits. He would come down to host the reunion, when the extended family would gather at the top of a hill by the old family graveyard for food, fellowship and family business.
Like most of the attendees, we’d turn into the lane that eased across the neighbor’s land, honking to announce we were coming through. There was a gate we had to open to gain entrance to “our” land. Tradition mandated a stop at the spring for a drink of pure mountain water before crawling the last half mile of rutted, dirt road. We’d pass the old house—a log cabin—and be reminded of what growing up there was like for my grandmother and her six brothers and sisters.
Depending on road conditions and how the car was packed, kids might be off-loaded before the last stretch up to the cemetery to keep car bottoms from scraping on the rocks. Once there, we spread blankets, set up our lawn chairs, and loaded our food onto the picnic tables beside the fenced graveyard. My older sister would drag me through the little graveyard gate into the past, where she read to me and we memorized names and relationships of the dead to kinfolk sitting outside the fence, and thus, to us.
It was impossible not to feel absorbed into a vast family matrix, not to feel the deep, strong roots of an enormous family tree. Standing among those headstones, I was as close to the past as I was to the present. There I found (literal) concrete proof of oral history—how I’d been named after my great-great grandmother Rebecca. There was this sense of permanence and continuity, comforting me that the safety-net of family ties was somehow impervious to time and even to death.
After we ate, my grandmother’s oldest brother called the business meeting to order and youngsters scattered in all directions to escape boring grown-up talk. At some point, though, when I was old enough to pick up on the content of those meetings, I realized they were mostly about maintaining the graveyard. One year the cattle had broken through the fence and knocked over some of the headstones, cracking a few, breaking others. I remember feeling violated, as if juvenile delinquent cattle had deliberately vandalized this beloved place. I also remember feeling a certain sadness as the years passed and my grandmother’s generation aged and died. Attendance at the reunions diminished and so did interest in the graveyard. We lost the connecting generation—those ones who had actually known the people at rest there, who could bring them to life with stories and anecdotes.
My Uncle William, chairman of the business meetings and owner of the land, wasn’t much older than I am now when he undertook the responsibility of seeing that the final resting place of our ancestors was kept in good order. He died in 1985 and, to my knowledge, was the last one buried in that graveyard.
As Ruth Teaford Baker said, “Regardless of sentiments, there is a mighty exodus from other states into the South during the month of May. The tone has changed somewhat from the past, but the basis of the tradition is strong family ties that transcend time and space. People return to their roots as surely as the birds return year after year to their territories.”
Though many non-southerners think it morbid, we know it’s about family ties. I’m grateful for my understanding, born of experience, of how this holiday came into being. This Memorial Day, as I pay my respects to those men and women who died in military service, I’ll also remember the longer-standing traditions rooted in my southern family heritage.
For more on the subject, here’s an op/ed piece from today’s New York Times: