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How to Celebrate Memorial Day at the Cemetery - An Old-Fashioned Decoration Day

Updated on May 26, 2014
Cemetery: Elizabeth, Arkansas
Cemetery: Elizabeth, Arkansas | Source

Have You Ever Heard of Decoration Day?

Traipsing around the graves in the cemetery next to the church I grew up in (which had only an outhouse during those years) was a regular Sunday afternoon pastime on Decoration Day in my hometown of Elizabeth, Arkansas. Decoration Day was usually the Sunday of Memorial Weekend, unless Memorial Day fell on a fifth weekend, in which case Decoration Day was held on the fourth Sunday. Why? Because that's the way it was always done, the older folks tell me. Decoration Day, despite when Memorial Day might fall, was always--and still is--held on the fourth Sunday of May. That is just the way it is.

So on that fourth Sunday of May, Decoration Day was a time when relatives, locals, and those not-so-local from our little Arkansas town and beyond would come together to remember loved ones lost. Our town of Elizabeth had no paved roads, no stop signs, and no known population. There was a general store with a couple of gas pumps plus a little post office. Elizabeth was a small town that many in the surrounding towns had never heard of, but that little dirt-road town would have no trouble filling up that cemetery on Decoration Day.

Huddling under the pavilion on a rainy Sunday
Huddling under the pavilion on a rainy Sunday

The gates would open, allowing folks to spill in, with the church crowd coming in a little later. At one end of the cemetery was a pavilion with tables, and this is where we had our lunch. Lunch, you ask? Yes, of course. The ladies from miles around brought various casseroles, fried chicken (yeah, they never forgot that!), chicken and dumplings, meatloaf, pinto beans, green beans, scalloped potatoes, breads, and numerous other dishes. Sometimes the dessert table, brimming with cakes, pies, and cookies, almost outdid the “regular” food in size. Coolers offered soft drinks and lemonade, and many of the locals brought thermoses of coffee. People sat on built-in benches in the pavilion, in the lawn chairs they brought, or else they just stood or milled around.

Ladies preparing food....
Ladies preparing food....


After a prayer, we would all line up and fill our plates, visiting while we ate. Individuals would find their relatives’ headstones, decorating their graves with plastic flowers. Every year, I would look for those of my Grandma Trudy, and then later Grandma Lillian, plus various aunts and uncles, including greats, and even cousins, many having passed as infants.

Just a few years back, we added my little nephew, who was buried high on a beautiful hill in a new area across from the old cemetery that had filled with graves. Imagine all the families represented there, as my own spans a century. This special Memorial Day ritual didn't focus only on veterans on this day, but on those buried in this particular graveyard.

History of Decoration Day

Growing up, I never knew that Memorial Day was meant to be for deceased veterans only, as our family spent the holiday remembering all our loved ones who had passed on. As far as the history goes, Decoration Day was first called such because it was a time after the Civil War when folks would go to cemeteries to decorate the graves of those who had died in the war. It wasn't until the early 1900s that the day became a national holiday known as Memorial Day, a day when those who died in all wars would be remembered. What Wikipedia describes as a Southern tradition with families gathering near the graves, like a family reunion, to enjoy a potluck together, sounds like the tradition I have taken part in my whole life.


Cemetery with church in the distance
Cemetery with church in the distance

Decoration Day represented a special way to celebrate the passing of our relatives and was also a way to reconnect with old friends and extended family—a reunion, of sorts. As the years have gone by, I've been fortunate in that I have often been able to arrange my schedule in order to get back to that place. The tradition still continues, and I feel fortunate every time I'm able to attend.

While the years have produced new generations of visitors, many that I don't know, there is still familiarity with most of the families represented there. I guess I've grown up along with everybody else, as I often get a raised eyebrow and a not-so-sure-but-I-think-I-know inquiry: "Now, aren't you Leon and Shirley's girl?"

#14/30
#14/30

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    • profile image

      Rhonda, Elizabeth Girl too! 

      3 months ago

      I absolutely loved this! First time I’ve seen this post... thanks for sharing! What great memories we, in our family, have and I’m thankful Decoration Day is one of them! (our childhood was incredible) One awesome thing about your memory is as i was reading it I relived it with you! Love you cousin! Please share others you may have!

    • Victoria Lynn profile imageAUTHOR

      Victoria Lynn 

      4 years ago from Arkansas, USA

      Thanks, Peg! All this talk about nostalgic makes me sad that I didn't get to go this year. I am going to try my best to make it next year!

    • Victoria Lynn profile imageAUTHOR

      Victoria Lynn 

      4 years ago from Arkansas, USA

      Cyndi--I know what you mean. No borders . . . sigh. Thanks for reading!

    • PegCole17 profile image

      Peg Cole 

      4 years ago from Dallas, Texas

      What a beautiful and respectful tradition. I remember these gatherings at the park, the wonderful food and families sharing time together. Nicely nostalgic.

    • cclitgirl profile image

      Cynthia Calhoun 

      4 years ago from Western NC

      I hadn't heard of Decoration Day until this hub, but it makes perfect sense. Well-written and it's so important to remember the people who gave their lives in the name of our country - indeed all countries. (Sigh...it makes me wish that the world didn't have borders...)

    • Victoria Lynn profile imageAUTHOR

      Victoria Lynn 

      4 years ago from Arkansas, USA

      Sunshine--It's also a time that we remember others we've lost--and reconnect with family and old friends. It's a neat time.

    • Sunshine625 profile image

      Linda Bilyeu 

      4 years ago from Orlando, FL

      I've never heard of Decoration Day, until now...it's a great way for families and friends to honor soldiers. Thank you for sharing!

    • Victoria Lynn profile imageAUTHOR

      Victoria Lynn 

      5 years ago from Arkansas, USA

      rose-the planner--I'm glad you liked the hub! I may be heading to Decoration Day this weekend! :-)

    • Victoria Lynn profile imageAUTHOR

      Victoria Lynn 

      5 years ago from Arkansas, USA

      sparkleyfinger--It is a great tradition. I have touched base with family, friends, and townspeople over the years since I was just a child. Pretty cool!

    • Victoria Lynn profile imageAUTHOR

      Victoria Lynn 

      5 years ago from Arkansas, USA

      Kathryn--It is a neat tradition, huh? I agree. :-) Yeah, I guess I've gotten carried away on so many holiday hubs. LOL! Thanks for reading!

    • Victoria Lynn profile imageAUTHOR

      Victoria Lynn 

      5 years ago from Arkansas, USA

      Rtalloni--I do see a lot of family when I attend Decoration Day. Sometimes we have reunions that weekend. It's a great time to remember family members who have passed and those we still have. Veterans, too! Thanks for your comments and the link. I'll have to check yours out. Thanks!

    • rose-the planner profile image

      rose-the planner 

      5 years ago from Toronto, Ontario-Canada

      Great Story! I have never heard of Decoration Day but the way in which you honour and celebrate your loved ones that have passed on, sounds an awful lot like All Soul's Day which Catholics observe in November. Thanks for sharing!

    • sparkleyfinger profile image

      Lynsey Harte 

      5 years ago from Glasgow

      Sounds like a lovely tradition. What better way to remember our loved ones than a community gathering together and sharing memories. Nice hub!

    • Kathryn Stratford profile image

      Kathryn 

      5 years ago from Manchester, Connecticut

      I did not know Memorial Day used to be called Decoration Day. This is a very interesting story. I really like your hometown's way of celebrating it. It's meaningful, it's sweet that everyone decorates gravestones of their loved ones (and it is easier to remember someone while at the graveyard), and it brings a community together. Anything involving food makes a holiday seem more merry.

      Thanks for sharing this with us. You provide a lot of hubs on the various holidays!

      Voted up and sharing.

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 

      5 years ago from the short journey

      Thanks for sharing your experience with Memorial Day and your family and friends. Many people do include more than veterans in their observance of this holiday and it can be a time for wonderful family reunions.

      I think that remembering family members other than veterans is a natural evolution for the holiday, but it must also be linked to the fact that service men and women do not go alone. The hearts of all who love them go with them, and when they do not return, the lives of their loved ones is forever changed.

      It's been good to read various perspectives on this important holiday. Linked to mine on Memorial Day--thanks!

    • Victoria Lynn profile imageAUTHOR

      Victoria Lynn 

      6 years ago from Arkansas, USA

      That's a neat tradition, kthix! I'm heading home this Memorial Weekend to an old fashioned Decoration Day. I'm excited--haven't been in several years! Thanks for stopping by!

    • kthix10 profile image

      kthix10 

      6 years ago from IL

      Interesting, I grew up in the midwest. As a kid I visited the cemetery every year on Memorial Day with the American Legion. My dad was an active member. We would get up at 4am, open up the Legion Hall, make breakfast for all the men, serve and feed them. Then everyone would go to the cemeteries to replace the American Flags on the graves of soldiers dating back to the Civil War. Later in the day we would have a parade and end up back at the cemetery for a ceremony.

    • Victoria Lynn profile imageAUTHOR

      Victoria Lynn 

      6 years ago from Arkansas, USA

      Hey, Real! It's just an old small town tradition. I may have to go back home for it this year. Haven't been in a couple of years. Thanks for reading this!

    • RealHousewife profile image

      Kelly Umphenour 

      6 years ago from St. Louis, MO

      I have never heard of this either! It does seem like a great idea:) thanks for sharing this!

    • Victoria Lynn profile imageAUTHOR

      Victoria Lynn 

      6 years ago from Arkansas, USA

      teaches--Evidently, Decoration Day is an old southern holiday. I just grew up thinking it was the norm. It's a pretty neat thing.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 

      6 years ago

      I had not heard of Decoration Day but it seems like a great holiday to make national in the US. We can never over honor our loved ones who have passed on. This looks like a great place to celebrate with family and friends.

    • Victoria Lynn profile imageAUTHOR

      Victoria Lynn 

      6 years ago from Arkansas, USA

      Susan, Glad I could share this. The tradition always meant a lot to me.

    • Just Ask Susan profile image

      Susan Zutautas 

      6 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      I've never heard of Decoration Day before. What a wonderful way to remember those that have died and gather with friends and relatives.

    • Victoria Lynn profile imageAUTHOR

      Victoria Lynn 

      6 years ago from Arkansas, USA

      Thanks, prasetio. This celebration has been a very special time for me and the people that I know--all of our lives.

    • prasetio30 profile image

      prasetio30 

      6 years ago from malang-indonesia

      Nice report, Vistoria. The best things for our life if we can meet relatives, even the old friends. Thanks for share this with us. Take care!

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