The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Decoration Day

By Donald F. Blanford © 1986

Issue: June, 1986

Ever since Great-great-grandfather Bottner first donated the land, the second Sunday in June has been Decoration Day at the Bottner's Grove Cemetery. I don't know how old the practice really is, but I've never met anyone in Lee County [Virginia] old enough to recall a time before it started. Many other small cemeteries in Southwest Virginia have their own decoration days at various times through the spring and summer. The custom has nothing to do with the national holiday of Decoration Day, which we now call Memorial Day.

Nowadays, families gather to remember their dead and honor their memory with the floral arrangements they've brought. In times past, it was a much bigger event each year.

Preparation for Decoration Day started on Saturday. Before the dew was dry, the children would comb the hillsides to gather green ferns and the wildflowers in bloom. They hunted for columbine, bush honeysuckle, Washington's bower (some folks call it mock orange), a bit of lilac, or perhaps some wild rose. Breaking dogwood was always forbidden, although no one seemed to know why. The flowers were brought home to be bundled with string or a bit of corn shuck - ribbon was far too scarce - and stored in a cool cellar overnight.

On Saturday afternoon the graves needed tending. There was 'mowing and trimming to be done, and headstones to be set straight after the long winter. On the morning of Decoration Day families came on foot, by wagon, and some even by car to gather at the cemetery. Relatives started off before first light to arrive from long distances like Middlesboro and the mining camps around Harlan. There would be a preacher (at one time a little church stood at the site), and there would be singing. The graves were strewn with wildflowers.

One or two markers always seemed to be left bare. A few sprigs from each family went on these lonely graves until they were covered with more greenery than some of the largest family groups. I'm sure no one ever stopped to realize how aptly this symbolized the sharing among neighbors that made life in the mountains a reality.

The rest of the day was for the living. Parents could visit and teenagers shyly flirt. Children were scolded for stepping on graves and climbing on headstones. Dinner was on the ground. Grandfather Thompson's farm was the closest, so most folks sat in the shade by his house. Cool spring water hauled up from the hollar washed down the food in the baskets. Everyone stretched out on the grass, except for a girl who was being courted. She would sit on her beau's bandanna or scrap of quilt - to protect her from the ground she would gladly sit on every other afternoon all summer. The day was an annual opportunity to visit, and a chance to share the memories of good times and hard.

Travel comes easy now. We take distances for granted, and we drive to the cemetery to spread some flowers purchased from the florist. We no longer tend our families' graves ourselves. Everything evolves, even Decoration Day, but at least the custom has not been lost. This is one more small segment of Blue Ridge heritage that deserves to be preserved.