Appalachia, trapped in poverty and ignorance, its landscapes ravaged by the lumber and coal barons, became the poster child of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society War on Poverty in 1964.
Sociologists viewed the region as a Petri dish in which to test their theories to assuage the citizens’ misfortunes, but they overlooked one determinant of life in the mountains.
The most revered social event of the Appalachian people was not Christmas: It was Decoration Day, often with Dinner on The Ground, when generations rendezvoused in cemeteries to reconnect with their kinfolks and remember their deceased loved ones.
As this devotion to Decoration Day — which later became Memorial Day — affirms, the region’s people and culture are defined by the harsh reality of death.
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President James Garfield inaugurated Decoration Day on May 30, 1868, in a moving speech at Arlington National Cemetery. An excerpt from that speech is still relevant today: “I love to believe that no heroic sacrifice is ever lost; that the characters of men are molded and inspired by what their fathers have done.”
Some of my earliest memories are of my siblings and myself crafting flowers from crepe paper and wire. We made pilgrimages to cemeteries to plant our creations on our ancestors’ graves.
I never knew most of these people, but the hundreds of people converging on the churchyards taught me about their lives and deaths. My grandfather’s first wife died in a fire; my grandmother died from surgical complications; an uncle died from rabies, another uncle and his wife were killed in a tornado; a great uncle and aunt who died in a rubella outbreak left eight orphans to be adopted by the neighbors; three young boys were born and died on the same day three years apart.
The deceased became mythic figures whom I should venerate while I endeavored to add to our family legacy before I joined them in glory.
While I treasure those memories, now I realize that such a fixation on the dead generates a sense of fatalism that strangles the hope of a better life now. The first verse of Bill Monroe’s “A Cabin in Gloryland” illustrates this all too well:
Many years I’ve been lookin’ for a place to call home
But I still didn’t find it so I must travel on
I don’t care for the fine mansions on earth’s sinkin’ sand
Lord build me a cabin in the corner of gloryland.
People from outside the region cannot understand a culture where death is such an unrelenting reality. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” is not just a Bible verse; it is the denouement of Appalachian life.
Therein lay the paradox of Decoration Day: The people who congregated in the graveyards were rejuvenated by the memories of the dead. The pull of home was strong and every year generations gathered like the swallows returning to Capistrano to begin a new cycle of life.
But the sweeping changes of the mid- to late-20th century disrupted the rhythm of those cycles. The exodus of the mountain people to the manufacturing jobs of the northern cities meant that it was more difficult to make the journey home. The newly urbanized families had fewer children who grew up with little or no knowledge of their ancestors. Without the renewal of those ties, the crowds at Decoration Day dwindled and disappeared.
Most communities no longer celebrate Decoration Day. Death is still devouring the mountain people, not in epic battles and Shakespearean tragedies, but by the emptiness spawned by drug addiction. These deaths have no connection to the past and their memories are often tarnished with shame or forgotten altogether.
I change the flowers on the graves of my parents to reflect the seasons, but I never see anyone else in the cemetery. Silk flowers made in China have replaced the crepe paper roses I made as child; a wave of contrition at my indolence washes over me. The dead whisper to me as I kneel to brush away the grass clippings from the tombstones and their murmurings buoy my spirit.
I think I will go online to order crepe paper while it is on my mind.
Roger Guffey of Lexington is a math professor. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.