Decoration Day

Posted by | June 16, 2016

An important tradition symbolic of the vital place of family in Appalachian life is Decoration Day, usually held on a Sunday in June. Families gather at rural churches and cemeteries to honor the memory of deceased family members.

A few days earlier, neighbors and kin gather to mow the cemetery grass, clean the graves, and prepare flowers. Homes are opened to accommodate family members returning from far and wide, communal meals are prepared, and folks gather to make a little music.

On Decoration Day, special preaching and church singing pay homage to the dead and bring families and communities closer together. The service is followed by “dinner on the grounds,” with large quantities of food cooked by local community members. Graves are decorated with flowers, visited, and stories told of humor, love, and remembrance about family members buried there.

Image ULPA 1979.33.0374/Jean Thomas, The Traipsin' Woman, Collection/University of Louisville Photographic Archives.

Image ULPA 1979.33.0374/Jean Thomas, The Traipsin’ Woman, Collection/University of Louisville Photographic Archives.


Timing of the event reflects Appalachia’s agrarian heritage. Mid-June was a time when crops were planted and growing, but long before harvest, mountain weather allowed for outdoor activity and made travel easier, and flowers were in bloom for decorating graves.

It was a betwixt and between time when mountain folk could reflect on their shared family and community heritage. Decoration Day is also a ritual for healing rifts and wounds among living family members. For all families, Decoration Day is a time and place for reconnecting kinship networks and remembering core family values. The tradition of Decoration Day in Appalachia is an old one, but it is a living tradition.

Source: Smithsonian Center for Folklife & Cultural Heritage

Decoration+Day appalachia appalachian+culture appalachian+history history+of+appalachia

4 Responses

  • Joan says:

    I miss those old traditions. However, the weekend before Memorial Day I took my black shepherd for a walk at Emigrant Lake, near the old cemetery. The parking lot at the cemetery was filled, as was the road leading up the hillside. Youngsters, oldsters and everyone in between were emptying out of cars, pickups and just good old guy “rigs>].” Out of hatchbacks and backs of trucks and rigs came lawnmowers, weedwackers, rakes, shovels, and various kinds of cutting implements. With some unspoken plan, the work group spread out over the hillside, mowing, wacking, and tending to graves. There was no food laden table, but the camaraderie of people talking about a shared and honored task was like music. Thanks for reminding me of that lovely day.

  • tipper says:

    The Decoration Days have been going on around my part of Appalachia for the past few weeks. I’m hoping to go to one next weekend-that I have to travel by boat to reach : )

  • […] in de Appalachen. Eens per jaar in de lente trekken families naar de graven van hun voorouders voor Decoration Day. Alle graven worden schoongemaakt en voorzien van verse bloemen en […]

  • latasha says:

    I’m in north east TN. I’ve never heard of this but it will now become tradition! I love these old traditions so very much. they need to come back!

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