Decoration Day

Decoration Day: Honey, You Look Just Like Your Mama

Phyllis Lifestyle 50 Comments

Decoration Day…only if you are Southern will you get this one. If you are not Southern, then you need to know about this to appreciate what we Southern children know down deep in our souls.

Decoration Day is a Sunday in May or June when your family gathers at the cemetery where all your relatives from generations past (kinfolk) are buried. In the South most of the time your deceased family members were all placed in the same cemetery out of respect to those gone before.

It was important in our family when I was growing up because it was important to my mother and my grandmother and her mother before that. You just didn’t miss. It was a command performance.

Now, this might seem morbid to the unaware, but it was the day that you dressed in your Sunday best, picked flowers from your garden, and carefully strolled through the cemetery and placed blossoms on the graves of your relatives out of respect. It was not a day we looked forward to because every Sunday this occurred, the temperature in the South would break sweltering records. And it was a day when hose, heels, and dresses were mandatory—gloves and hats, too, if you had them.

After all, it was your time to shine. And you better make your mother proud. So every Mother’s Day, it was Decoration Day at my mother’s family place. There were seven girl cousins and three boy cousins all decked out. We were hugged by people we had never seen before and told a zillion times, “You look just like your mama.” Agreed.

The guys left us, escaping to remove ties, and we seven girls strolled about making our mamas and our grandmother very proud. We would listen to stories of how this was the most important day of the year when they were growing up, as this was when they would see aunts and uncles and long-lost cousins.

Afterwards, there was always a huge Sunday lunch back at my grandmother’s house, the event for which our mothers had been cooking for a week. You always brought your best dishes and desserts. What a feast.

I know now what my mother had been talking about all those years. The day we dreaded always turned out to be one of the most fun days. It would take us girl cousins all day to tell stories of boys, school, church activities, trips, and projects we were stitching or sewing. We would sit on the big porch swing and talk for hours.

I miss those days of sitting and talking. I wish today our children had that experience of face-to-face conversation. They all have mastered texting and emailing, but nothing replaces the spoken word and sharing stories from what will be “the good old days” before too long.

That day in our growing up years was about family legacy. It was the respect for your family that transcended generations. The placing of the flowers meant we remembered you and your legacy that you left us. Each generation writes their own legacy for others to build on.

Each Decoration Day, we did our mamas proud. Success.

Today all of us cousins are texting, e-mailing, and sending photos, but nothing replaces a visit and sharing over a cup of coffee. Some things will never change, will they?

Do you have a family tradition that you would like to share?

Comments 50

  1. Lovely article but please know this type of custom was not exclusive to the south. I believe it was more a custom of a certain time. It was a huge tradition in our little valley along the PA/NY state line. My mother and aunts talked of the large gatherings at the cemeteries during their childhood in the Depression. They would clean the winter debris, bring fresh-cut flowers from their garden and end with a picnic lunch. And yes, they dressed in their finery. I was born in the mid-50s. Sadly, by then it wasnt the large family event, but it was still huge for Mom and became the same for me. I believe my love of genealogy was born at our family plot, hearing those old stories as we worked. I moved away from home for 20 years and Decoration Day was always hard because I wanted to be home taking care of things. I knew others did so only sporadically. I moved home in 2017 after my husband’s death and, while I still wish others would help, it simply doesn’t resonate with everyone. But I intend to care for that plot until my ashes and my husband’s are buried together there. ❤️

  2. Decoration Day at Cedar Tree Cemetery, Hackleburg, AL, is always the 1st Sunday in May. We have seven family members buried there. No relatives are still living nearby. I made a promise to my Grandmother and Aunt (Paternal), to make sure to put out flowers, even though I have to travel about 3 hours to get there. It was important to them and to me and my family to keep up this tradition.

    1. How well I understand this! You speak to my heart. Our Decoration Day
      at Old Mt. Tabor Community Church, near the small town of Glenwood,
      Arkansas, is held the third Sunday in May, rain or shine. When I was growing
      up, the whole hillside was covered with cars . People came home from all over
      the country for the occasion. We dressed to the nines (heels, hat, gloves).
      All our relatives and friends and neighbors from the community were there.
      Boys chased lizards all over the cemetery and we girls just tried to do our mothers
      proud. There was southern gospel singing inside, a sermon in the morning, a break
      for dinner on the ground, and then another round of singing well into the afternoon.
      These are the fondest memories of my childhood. Sadly, here anyway, it is a tradition
      that is dying. There are fewer and fewer every year. Only a few of us older ones still
      dress at all. Most are in shorts or jeans. A far cry. Our communities across the south
      will be the poorer for the loss of our beloved Decorations.

  3. Phyllis,
    What a lovely picture you painted of simpler times and Southern traditions. I long for those days so intensely it makes me cry. Certainly, we have many advantages today that are supposed to make life simpler and more comfortable: home appliances, warehouse shopping, electronics to beat the band, central a/c, pharmacies/convenient stores on every corner. But, somehow, all those conveniences have made life harder. Everybody is tuned in electronically but more disconnected than we’ve ever been.
    Thank you sharing this lovely story. We will always have our memories.

  4. How happy I am to have found your blog. Growing up in Virginia we had family runion in North Carolina at Old St. Peter’s and that was where most of the family tree were buried. The rememberence was good for everyone and the food was made by all the older family memories and it was grand to visit with cousins.
    As a Roman Catholic our family celebrates and prays for the repose of the sould of all our loved ones especially on All Soul’s Day which is the 2nd of November. We should never forget our loved ones who have gone before us and to pray for them and thank them for the joys and sadness of each of their lives. Thank you for reminding people that family ancestors matter.

  5. I am Phyllis’ brother and this article brought back some great memories. Phyllis left out a big part of the story. Not only did the relatives tell you that you looked like your mama or daddy, but the Great Aunts would then hug and kiss you right on the face! It would take three days to get their perfume smell off of your face! Great tradition and Memories!

  6. My grandmother (paternal) passed away a couple years ago. I miss her. About three years before her passing the two of us went to her home town and my grandfather’s hometown. We visited the cemetary in each town where many of my ancestors are buried. She told me stories about different relaives. I took pictures of the different tombstones of these relatives as she told me about them. Memories of that day I hold close to my heart.
    My maternal grandmother passed away many years ago. We didn’t make any trips to the cemetary. When I was growing up, we would get together with her 4 sisters and their families for The Fourth ofJuly, Christmas, and often Thanksgiving. There were many second cousins from both grandparents in my school. Looking back, it gave a feeling of security and stability that I appreciate, now. Thank the Lord for the family unit.

  7. As so often is the case, people use Memorial Day, a day to honor our fallen soldiers who gave their lives for us, to pay homage to family members. Because people will be at the cemeteries many will put flowers on all the graves of family members so others can see they have been remembered. Please take the time to honor the soldiers and honor your family members on birthdays, Mother and Father’s days. Display your American Flags, say the pledge of allegiance, and speak to the young ones about what it is REALLY all about on “Decoration Day”.

    1. I agree with you Betty, it was intended for fallen soldiers, but I think to save it only for soldiers is not quite right. Many of my family served and fell, and many didn’t, but I decorate and celebrate the memories of all of them. You must remember, families are not living as close together as they once did, only a few decades ago, so gatherings are less frequent…that is too bad, but that is the modern world, and I will continue putting flowers on the graves of all 366 graves in the cemetery nearby, many of which hold the remains of Civil War soldiers, and their mothers and fathers and wives all buried nearby. It only seems right to remember all of these people on Decoration Day – our soldiers with a flag and flowers, their families and friends and neighbors who didn’t serve, with flowers and who knows? maybe a flag too, since they waited here at home, those who loved their soldiers, and that in itself took great strength and bravery of a different but not less important sort.

  8. Precious Memories!!! Decoration Day was celebrated on Memorial Day in our small town. Our family continues the tradition today. The first day of summer to make homemade ice cream.

  9. We had this same tradition except it was always done on Labor Day weekend. I looked forward to helping my Mother put flowers on all her family graves after we had cleaned each plot. A high light was getting to see my Great Aunts who always came. We had a church service & then lunch was served under the large oakes that shaded the cemetery. I still have visions of the best macaroni & cheese & vanilla pound cake.

  10. I am also from Iowa….Cedar Rapids, and now living in our retirement destination near Charleston, SC. This year, I will have endured 3 Mother’s Days without my beloved mom; the first one coming just 6 weeks after her passing. I thought I would never make it trough the endless commercials and ads for Mother’s Day presents during that first one and while the sting has lessened, I miss her every day with great sadness. I remember the Decoration Days of my youth, an annual remembrance on Memorial Day, when all the living family members gathered at our loved ones’ graves to leave new spring flowers and talk about our shared memories. Now, because we are all spread around the US, we have a local florist deliver the flowers throughout the year to our parent’s grave and it seems so impersonal, yet I know it would make our parents happy to know we do remember them. I am struck now by the fleeting years and how scattered our remaining family members have become across the country. I miss these time-honored traditions and realize my sisters and I are the next ones to leave this earth for glory and can’t help but wonder who will decorate our graves and muse about our lives one day.

    1. Someone will carry on the tradition, Dee. I kind of long for the days when your family lived across the section. Mother’s Day can be difficult for me too but I also know what a gift having a Mother like mine was

  11. Oh, Phyllis ~ what wonderful story of heritage and long honored traditions. In NW Iowa, this day was also important in my family although admittedly, the dressing up and large family gathering afterwards, were lacking. Some folks can’t handle cemeteries but my Pastor gave it the best description as we were surrounding the casket of a dear fellow church member. He said, “this is Resurrection Ground” …. how true! We pay honor to those who have gone before us and to God for the promise he gives us.

  12. I love this. Who thinks about these things unless someone brings up these beautiful memories. I love reading these heartwarming stories that I can relate to. So many traditions are gone away. But you can relive them through all of the stories that women post. My mom will be 89 soon and I am so thankful that I still have her. She was just pointing out to me all the flowers in the cemetery. If I have all of these memories from my childhood just think how far back she can go with hers. Thanks to all of you who share.

  13. This will be the first year without my beloved mother. I was starting to dread this approaching Mother’s Day. While I planned on visiting the cemetery this Sunday, I will now go with a new purpose – with a smile on my face with my sisters by my side. Hopefully making my mother proud.

    1. She will be proud, I know it. I lost my mother several years ago on Mother’s Day weekend – the 8th – today, actually – I try to forget the date, but there must be something at work here, that I’m answering you and so noting the date – Anyhow, Kathleen, it’s a hard, hard time to get through, the Firsts, especially Mother’s Day, but you will, and you’ll cry a little, and you’ll talk to her a little, and you’ll decorate her grave in her memory, although you know more than anybody that her memory is alive and thriving, as is her spirit, within you. I’ll think about you, Kathleen, on Sunday and I wish for you strength, but also the healing that comes with each passing day, including and especially the first Mother’s Day. Bless you and your loving heart.

  14. I, too, have a decoration day this Mother’s Day weekend. Just got back from loading down the car with flowers (artificial). No family members left to share this day, but I dutifully make the trek each year.

  15. I grew up in North Dakota and every Memorial Day we would travel to the small town of Glen Ullen where our family members were laid to rest. It was a day I looked forward to with great excitement, as cousins from all over the state would gather together at my great aunt and uncle’s home to celebrate once the graves had been tidied and decorated. I believe this tradition showed all the children in our family there is nothing to fear in cemeteries, or death, for that matter. I remember laughing and carrying on conversations with relatives I’d known as I was decorating their graves…a shame we have so little of this kind of experience today.

  16. Love your story…grew up in Alabama and always went to Decoration Day….3rd Sunday in May…No one but me to keep up the tradition….all the family of my generation ( I am turning 70 this year) have died….my girls will take flowers but do not want to go to reunions (which are not happening much any more)..loosing this tradition so sad….Have flowers setting in the garage to be taken to the little country cemetery in memory of my Dad …and then to the small town cemetery for my Mom…..will try to continue this in my lifetime…. Love your stories…Keep up the good work

  17. Born and raised in Alabama, I know the meaning of Decoration Day. In literature, I believe that no one captured it better than Robert Penn Warren in his great book, “A Place To Come To”.

  18. I grew up in Kentucky and we did this on Memorial Day. It was a wonderful way of showing your respect and memories of those we miss. I am now far away in CA but when I go back to visit there is always a visit to my Mom and Dad.

  19. Thank you for those beautiful memories. I grew up in MN but as an adult, I fell in love with Southern Belles, the South in general – your genteel ways and beautiful styles in your homes & clothing. What a wonderful tradition Decoration Day was for your family and many other families.

  20. This blog is part of my day every morning. What a lovely way to start the day! Just a note–we always observed Decoration Day on Memorial Day here in Northern California and visited and decorated the graves of loved ones in the same way that you describe Southerners doing. We are so scattered now that this no longer happens, and it’s a shame.

  21. I was raised in my younger years in a small farming community in IA where Decoration Day was a huge event. As a child I recall it as we gathered with other folks in the city, groups like VFW wore their uniforms, carried flags and all met at the main cemetery where many of my relatives are buried. I recall it being more of a somber time, but always significant and special day to take flowers from our yards and place them on our loved ones graves. We did dress up, I think this was on what is now Memorial Day. I live in the Pac NW now but I have never forgotten the importance of times remembered on Decoration Days past.
    I know my cousins who live in IA still carry on the tradition of placing flowers on family graves in this same way today.
    I enjoy finding old pioneer cemeteries in this area and find myself sprucing up many ‘forgotten’ grave markers as I photograph them for family requests.
    Your Southern Traditions are so beautiful and bring back memories of our huge family gatherings that don’t happen much anymore except when a brave soul makes plans for a family reunion & tries to reunite a family again.

  22. Phyllis, I am sitting here crying. You described it so well. I am also wondering who is cleaning the Hill graves this year. I miss seeing those cousins.

  23. I’m also in the midwest, I grew up in Illinois, and I’m retired in Wisconsin, and we ‘celebrated’ Decoration Day to the hilt. It was Memorial Day that our family gathered and we decorated the graves at a large cemetery in Chicago where we would see the names of many many of our loved ones carved into the stones. My mom could never get herself to call Memorial Day anything other than Decoration Day for all of her life. It was a good tradition, I learned from it stories about the stones, the people who wore those names in life, who they really were – and I’ve carried my love of family history, learned in large part on Decoration Day, into my life, with my deep appreciation for genealogy, along with researching and recording local history of the area of Wisconsin I now live in, told through the stories of the people whose names are inscribed in the stones I find in the lovely, bucolic cemeteries that dot our countryside. And come Decoration Day, I will continue the tradition and put flowers at each and every headstone at the cemetery closest to me. It’s a tradition I’ll continue for as long as I’m able (which I suspect will be a very long time!) – I look forward to it, every year.

  24. Decoration day was just something we did to honor those that have gone on to be with the Lord. It’s sad that that’s the only time some folks come and clean the graves and leave flowers.

  25. I was raised on a farm in the midwest and my grandfather lived with us.
    May 30 was not only Decoration Day but also his birthday.
    Several days before we would go to the cemetery where my grandmother was burried and then make a trip to town to purchase flowers.
    I remember how big that urn seemed and how beautiful the flowers looked after he planted it.
    The celebration on that day in the cemetery included a band which played songs from the Civil war era.
    Yes, sitting outside in the hot sun seemed like forever.
    And, now when I return home and sometimes visit the cemetery, I am amazed how small that urn really was!!
    Thank you for all the beautiful memories – love your journal, keep up the good work.

  26. When I was young and living in Kansas City, Kan, we too gathered flowers from our yard to take to the cemetery.
    Now living in California, I miss Decoration Day as we called it, now Memorial Day.
    I just finished the book Southern Lady’s Tables, what a great book it brought back so many wonderful memories of day to day little celebrations in my life.

  27. My family is originally from Kansas. Decoration Day (now Memorial Day) was a holiday observed as strictly as Thanksgiving or Christmas. We collected peonies from the gardens to decorate the graves. Many of the plots were planted with peonies as well. The older cemeteries were awash in pinks, whites, and rosy red blooms and their perfume was so wonderful! My brother and I still make the pilgrimage to the cemetery and try to gather family, but I’m sure it’s a tradition that won’t last beyond my brother and myself.

  28. For as long as I can remember, our Family has had this tradition of what we called “Homecoming” or “Family Reunion.” It is the third Sunday in May every year. When I was a little girl, we would come from the city out to the country and stay with our Country Cousins for the whole weekend! What fun is was to play in the pasture, the milking barn and in the “crick.” On Saturday afternoon, there was always a huge Bar-B-Que cookout at the Family Farm and everyone would come-there would be huge roasting pits of Ribs and several grills for Hamburgers and Hot Dogs! After it would start getting dark, my cousins and uncles would pull out the guitars, mandolin, banjo and harmonica and after what we called a “Pickin'” — what a wonderful time.

    On Sunday morning, we would dress in our best (oh man those lacey underwear were the worst at 85°!!) and go to Church – my Great-Grandmother, Grandmother, Mother, all of her sisters and my cousins would in one pew!! Then off to my Great-Grandparents’ Farm for another day of eating all that we wanted and playing everywhere!

    About 5 p.m., everyone would load up in their cars and go back to the City. Those memories from my childhood are probably the most cherished I have.

    1. I loved reading about your family coming together. How blessed you are to have those memories. Wonder if people still do this.

  29. Decoration Day is this Sunday. Bought 3 pots of flowers yesterday, and going to cut grass and clean graves tomorrow. I will see lots of friends and family doing the same.

  30. When I was a young girl growing up in Ohio I would go with my Grandmother to visit our families graves.. She would pack us a lunch and we would ride the bus(no cars back then) to the cemetery. We then would walk to our families graves,clean them and place beautiful flowers that my grandmother had grown in their vases. She shared so much with me during this time and even though I no longer live in Ohio (Mississippi is home now) I now carry that tradition on here with my grandchildren..

  31. Thank you for sharing such beautiful memories. What a wonderful way to begin my day…..your journal entries, a cup of coffee and my two German Shorthair furry friends at my feet.

  32. I read your journal an love all of them! The Easter story brought back memories of a picture of your family going into church on Easter Sunday that was on the cover of the phone company magazine! This one brings back such happy memories! Oh how I miss Decoration Day and all the fun we had! Remember we ate the honeysuckle because we were starving before we got back to Mama’s house! I love & miss you and the next time I’m in Alabama we’ll have that cup of coffee! Happy Mothers Day!

  33. Even here in Texas we are spread apart but at least twice a year we travel to place flowers on our parents’ graves. Silk poinsettias at Christmas and a spring bouquet in the spring or summer. Many think it doesn’t matter because they are in heaven but I like the quote that we are remembering them and the legacy they left us.

  34. We did cemetery visits too, here in the north, although it wasn’t that kind of huge family gathering. However, because we are all scattered to the ends of the world, this doesn’t happen anymore. Too bad!

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