Decoration Day traditions: Crepe-paper flowers, tin can vases
Editor’s note: This week we publish the conclusion of Kaitlyn McConnell’s story about Decoration Day traditions that first appeared in her Ozarks Alive! blog. To read more of her stories about Ozarks people, places and history, visit ozarksalive.com
Ozark County native Donna Walker, now living in Ava, remembers crowded Decoration Day trips to the Souder cemetery, which even today is found down a curvy gravel road off Highway 95. The little white church sits off the road a piece, framed by trees and tombstones. Getting there is a drive off the road and back into time.
“There was just one lane up to the cemetery off the county road,” she says. “People would just stop in that lane and have to walk (from there).”
“You went however you had transportation. There would be cars, people in wagons, buggies.”
Once people arrived, dressed in their best despite the potentially sweltering Ozarks sun, there was more than just visiting.
“They might have a sermon and sing,” she says. “Singings were very important in that time. Lots of communities had quartets. People would come from all over.”
Then there was food. Whatever people could bring, they did.
“Fresh vegetables out of their garden,” says Walker. “Meat, pie and cake.”
“We were poor, but we didn’t know it. We had love and each other.”
Homemade grave flowers
While store-bought flowers were available — what’s a holiday without something to sell? — in rural parts of the Ozarks, it was common for families to make their own.
Walker talks of the crepe-paper creations that could be made by arranging the colorful, pliable paper into petals. Then, families often took tin cans and carved designs along the sides.
“That was the vase,” she says.
One time, Walker recalls, she and a cousin made a special creation for their ancestors’ graves while exploring the nearby creek.
“We gathered us a bunch of moss, and made a cross with some boards,” she says. They took the moss and adorned the boards, securing it with old screen wire. “We took them to their graves.”
Laying out the body, digging the grave
As a child, Walker witnessed other traditions related to death and burial that most today have only heard of.
“Very few people ever went to the hospital,” says Walker. “If they did go, they weren’t expected to come back alive.”
In those days before embalming, things unfolded quickly when someone did pass away.
Walker recalls her great-grandmother, the wife of an ordained minister, was often involved in laying out the body.
“I know they made a garment for ladies and children,” says Walker, and she assumes they did for the men as well. “They would wash the body.”
And even before communication by phone, locals were able to spread news more quickly than a grass fire.
“They had different men who would make the coffin,” says Walker, who also talks of wakes held nights before funerals.
“They would sit up with them at home all night. A couple of people would sit up with them.”
While local women helped prepare the body, men were out digging the grave — but not too soon.
“Even when a death was clearly imminent, the grave was never dug in advance,” notes the book Gone to the Grave. “To do so invited bad luck or another death in the family or, in some accounts, permitted an evil spirit to enter the grave.”
“Sometimes the weather would hinder,” says Walker. “Ice or snow or the creek being up. They’d have to bury them the next day.”
After all, digging was much different from today, too.
“When people had tractors, they had some implements that could help,” says Walker. “Before that, it was just by hand — picks and shovels.”
As a child, if there was a funeral in the community, the school would close and all of the students would travel together to the funeral. They were always held at 2 p.m.
“A funeral might last two hours or longer and often two preachers took turns sermonizing,” noted historian Townsend Godsey in his book, These Were the Last. “At the graveside service, friends stood up and testified to the virtues of the deceased, and neighbors took turns with the shovel, to fill the grave.”
And once a year, those people were remembered at Decoration Day.
Decoration Day traditions
The official start of Memorial Day in 1971 slowed Decoration Day traditions, which in some places had already evolved into the weekend of tasty barbecue and lakeside fun that many enjoy today. But in some parts of the Ozarks, traditional Decoration Day continues.
“A lot of country cemeteries still hold Decoration Day, though of course it has changed,” says Burnett, the author. “These days people show up early to drop off arrangements of silk flowers, but they don’t stick around. Some cemeteries have a volunteer on hand to take donations, but there aren’t any events that I’m aware of. A lot of cemeteries are completely decorated before the actual day of the event.”
Souder, Walker’s home community, is another place where it’s still recognized.
“A lot of people come who used to live there, but they don’t come like they used to,” says Walker.