Monday, May 31, 2010

Mountain Cemeteries: Decoration Day

[Note: During the summer months posting will be far less frequent, most likely one post per month, so that I can focus on another writing project. Weekly posts will resume in September, after Labor Day.]

Marker at Kayford Mountain Cemetery
(Copyright 2008 by Dory Adams)

I was taught to remember the dead and grew up watching my elders place wreaths and flowers on family graves for Easter, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and Christmas. However, the most important day for tending to family graves was Decoration Day, which was what we called Memorial Day when I was a young girl. In much of Appalachia, Decoration Day was a remembrance of ancestors, not just about honoring those who had died while serving in the military. Flags decorated the graves of fallen soldiers, and flowers decorated the graves of family members.

There is some concern that the meaning of Memorial Day has been lost since the traditional observance date of May 30th was moved to the last Monday of May in 1971. When the National Holiday Act created a three-day weekend, the focus of Memorial Day gradually shifted to weekend getaways and family cookouts – a summer kickoff of sorts.

For me, Memorial Day has always been about all those things – cemeteries, fallen soldiers, the beginning of summer, kin and cookouts. Only the language has changed: Decoration Day, The 30th of May, Memorial Day. My maternal family is from the small towns nestled in the hills of Huntingdon County in Pennsylvania, and my great-grandparents, grandparents, and assorted aunts and uncles are buried in the mountain cemeteries there. On Memorial Day, in the town of Three Springs where my grandfather lived, people would gather flowers from their gardens and meet at the town green to form a procession where they carried the flowers to the cemetery. It wasn’t exactly a parade as there was no band, but there may have been a drummer on occasion to provide a cadence. Grandpap always cut rosebuds from the bush in his front yard on the morning of May 30th for me to carry and place on the graves of Grandma and Sarah Alice, their youngest daughter who’d died at birth. He carried flowers for the graves of his parents and for his brother Alfred who’d been killed in World War II. Following a small service in the cemetery, a trumpeter would play Taps, and then we’d walk across the cemetery to place our flowers at the gravesites.

Later that day, everyone seemed to gather at my grandfather’s house. Carloads of out-of-town relatives would arrive. There would be a backyard cookout and the house would fill up with aunts and uncles and cousins. When every lawn chair, porch swing, and porch banister was taken, blankets would be spread on the ground so people could sit on the lawn without getting grass stain on their clothes. People came and went all day long, and if you paid attention to the grownups talking you were bound to pick up a family story or two. My great-aunts loved to tell stories of their brother’s (my grandpap) mischief as a boy, so I know all about whose pigtails he scorched with a match, and how he caught a fish with his bare hands when jumping into the creek in his Sunday suit on the way home from church, and how he rode his new sled down the stairs at the farm on Christmas morning. The stories of Uncle Alfred were told in a different tone of voice, more hushed and with sadness filling up the silent gaps.

Reading Lee Maynard’s The Pale Light of Sunset got me thinking about mountain cemeteries again. Although I’m not from West Virginia, the kinship I feel with West Virginia writers began when I first read Chuck Kinder’s work, and has continued as I’ve read the work of other West Virginia writers. In the opening chapter of The Pale Light of Sunset, Lee Maynard wrote of being born in his grandmother’s parlor, and of learning fifty years later of the birth of a stillborn aunt, his mother’s twin, who’d also been born in that same parlor. Maynard writes: “There was no money for tiny burials. In the stillness and quiet of a black summer night, with waves of heat pouring down the valley and out across the rivers in the distance, with the heavy scent of honeysuckle hanging in the night air, the tiny body was named, wrapped in my grandmother’s prized quilt, and buried in a hand-dug grave beneath the tall grass just beyond the vegetable garden. Beneath the tall grass where I played.” Many years later after living most of his life in the southwest, he returns to where the house once stood in the West Virginia mountains, but the house and everything that he knew there was gone. He writes: “I lie down in the grass and stare upward into a pale steel sky. And I realize that, had I, too, been stillborn, I would lie here, too, forever, next to an aunt whose name I never knew. Under the grass.”

I remember slowly closing the book and putting it down after reading that opening chapter, too moved by and connected to those words to read any further just then. I thought of my mother telling me about a baby buried under a rosebush on my great-grandparents’ farm. She wasn’t sure whose baby it was as it had happened long ago; no doubt in a similar situation to what Lee Maynard writes of when there was no money for tiny burials. I suppose the rosebush was planted later to mark the spot, but Mom always phrased it as “the baby buried under the rosebush at the farm.” Everyone was born at home back then, including her. It was a grim irony that the first of her family to be born in a hospital would be her baby sister, strangled by the umbilical cord which had become wrapped around her neck in the birth process. It was to her grave that I carried those rosebuds on Memorial Day.

Red poppies are supposed to be the flower of remembrance for war dead, but roses have become a flower of remembrance for me, starting with those deep pink roses from my grandfather’s yard. It may even go back to that rosebush on my great-grandfather’s farm. In my own garden there are white roses planted in memory of a dear friend who died far too young of cancer. In fact, when we moved to the house where we now live, that rosebush came with us, transplanted from the yard at the old house. Just last week, my husband set a new stake into the ground to help support the branches which are heavy with white buds and blossoms. There are also poppies in my garden, but they are orange poppies and not the “In Flanders Field” red poppies meant for soldiers, planted because I remember them growing in Grandma’s garden when I was barely three years old and the orange blossoms seemed almost as tall as me.

In Chuck Kinder’s first novel, Snakehunter, one of the characters, an aunt, is determined to make sure all the family graves have tombstones marking them. After forty years of putting headstones on family graves, she manages to get the final stone set on her brother’s grave in a West Virginia hillside cemetery on Decoration Day 1950. The day is spent getting the new granite marker up the hill on a washed-out and deeply rutted dirt road to the family gravesite, and then pulling weeds and tending to the other family graves there. I think of this story every time I visit a mountainside graveyard, and of two West Virginia cemeteries in particular, the Hatfield Cemetery and the Kayford Cemetery.

Hatfield Cemetery, copyright 2006 by Kevin Scanlon

In the Hatfield cemetery in Logan County, West Virginia, the graves go all the way up the steep hillside to the woods, and some of the older graves at the top are actually in the woods now. At the center of the cemetery is the Hatfield family plot where a marble statue of the patriarch, Devil Anse, dominates. In contrast to this formal plot are the more humble graves further up the hillside, some with handmade wooden markers, others marked by rocks with hand-chiseled names and dates. We tend to think of a marked grave as a permanent memorial, but it’s impossible to stand in such a hillside cemetery and not notice how the wilderness reclaims those graves if left untended.

Hatfield Cemetery, copyright 2006 by Kevin Scanlon

The old cemetery atop Kayford Mountain is now practically surrounded by a mountain top removal mine site there. The dirt road up to the cemetery is deeply rutted, which make it impassable to all but four-wheel drive vehicles. As we walked the rest of the way up after driving as far as we could, I wondered How do they ever get funeral processions and caskets up here for burials? While most of the graves there are very old, there are also a few recent graves with new granite markers. It’s an odd juxtaposition of the cemetery and the mine site, the land defying human attempts to claim it along the washed out dirt road, yet destroyed beyond belief by humans and mining corporations blasting away just beyond the graveyard.

Kayford Mountain Cemetery, copyright 2008 by Dory Adams

The cemetery where my grandparents are buried is in a more pastoral setting, at the edge of town and surrounded by a gated stone wall separating it from the adjacent hill farms, the coal long ago mined from the region before the era of extreme strip mining. My mother and a cousin make sure there are flowers on the family graves for the holiday observances, particularly Memorial Day. It gives me a sense of peace knowing my ancestors are at rest in their mountain cemetery while I remember the dead my own way, planting flowers of remembrance in my own garden here in the city.

Photo Credits:
  • Top and bottom photographs: Kayford Mountain Cemetery, copyright 2008 by Dory Adams
  • Middle photographs: Hatfield Cemetery, copyright 2006 by Kevin Scanlon, all rights reserved, used by permission

Other News:
  • June 1st marks the first anniversary of In This Light.
  • During the summer months, posting will be far less frequent (most likely one post per month) so that I can focus on another writing project. Weekly posts will resume in September, after Labor Day.

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Dr. Cyndi said...

Hi, Dory! I love this post - I am moving back to North Carolina from Minnesota in a few months and it is this rich history that lures me back. I just love the south... thanks for sharing!

Dory Adams said...

Glad you liked the post, Dr. Cyndi. I've only made it down to North Carolina once, but loved those mountains and had a great visit. I hope to get back there again.

cynthia newberry martin said...

Dory, this is a wonderful remembrance with great photos of the old cemetery.

I've enjoyed catching up on all your posts. And congratulations on your one year anniversary! That's a big accomplishment.

Dory Adams said...

Thanks Cynthia! Good to see you here again.