We always celebrated Memorial Day when I was growing up - a day of remembrance and thanks that always included a visit to the cemetery to place flowers on the graves of family members who had served in the military. The visitation was usually followed by a picnic and barbecue back at the house. Memorial Day also marked the beginning of summer vacation.
I was introduced to grave decorations when I moved to Madison County and they were different than I was used to. I learned that each of the hundreds of small family cemeteries in the county has its own unique Decoration Day – all held on Sundays between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Prior to the actual Decoration Day, family members would tend to the cemetery – mow the grass, rake the grave mounds, and remove last year’s plastic flowers. On the appointed Sunday, relatives would gather first at someone’s house for a reunion and dinner and then move to the cemetery to honor the deceased and to listen to preaching. This wasn’t the case with every cemetery in the county – some were only mowed and others weren’t touched at all.
I went to the Decoration at the Rice Cove cemetery this past Sunday. I was last there in 1977 when I had gone at the invitation of Bonnie Chandler who hosted a huge meal and reunion at her house. I made photographs at the reunion and cemetery, a number of which were included in my book, Sodom Laurel Album. Bonnie’s children and their spouses continue the tradition today and Sunday’s meal was every bit the feast it was when Bonnie was alive.
What struck me about the day was how little it had changed from thirty-six years earlier. Yes, faces were different – some older with more lines and wrinkles; some faces not there; other new faces in their place. The massive tree in the cemetery was bigger, offering even more shade and respite from the heat of the day. And there were certainly more graves. The road to the cemetery was improved and easy to negotiate, even with all the rain. But the placing of flowers, the singing of hymns, and the preaching and the saving were old and comfortable rhythms, as they were meant to be. In this time of seemingly constant and drastic change, it was reassuring to be in a place where the rituals and traditions remained constant.