Mom decorating a grave with mountain laurel while wearing my favorite dress — 1960s.

When I was growing up in West Virginia, Memorial Day was less about a day off from work or school and more about “decoration” at the church cemetery. We didn’t always hold Decoration Day ON Memorial Day, but it was always around this time.

The idea, going way back in Appalachia, was to set aside a day to care for family cemeteries. Many of these would be private affairs in someone’s back pasture or up on a hill. Family members would gather to mow, trim, mend fences, clean stones, and generally do a year’s worth of maintenance. Decorating the graves with flowers would be the finishing touch. Then, everyone would relax in shade and enjoy a picnic. In the cemetery. Which I think is nice.

My childhood Decoration Days were held in the cemetery at Laurel Fork Church, so it was pretty well maintained (mostly by my family who were assigned to mow it–sigh–that’s another story). It was more of a homecoming affair. Anyone who had kin buried there would turn up on a Saturday in early June with flowers, lawn chairs, and time set aside for visiting.

Early that morning, Dad would send us out foraging for flowers. I was usually on daisy duty. Dad gathered mountain laurel, Mom cut roses, and my brothers fetched baskets of ferns. Everything was piled up on the porch and we’d make flat bouquets to lay on the graves. First, lay down three or so ferns, then place flowers on top in a pretty design. Finally, snug it all together with a bit of twine.

We’d layer a dozen or so of these bouquets in a basket and drive to church. Laying the bouquets on the graves felt really special to me. I especially wanted to place them on my grandparent’s grave. I’d never known them but wished I had. If we had extra flowers, we’d put them on graves that didn’t have any whether we knew those folks or not. Dad probably knew them all.

Others would bring jelly jars of flowers so they would last longer but I like the idea that our bouquets were only good for a day or two. Then they would fade and die and sink back into the soil from whence they came.

After decorating the graves of the dead, folks would gather around and catch up on life. They sat in folding lawn chairs in the shade or went in the church to gather around the piano and sing hymns. That piano was NEVER in tune but that didn’t keep someone from banging out There’s Power in the Blood or Rock of Ages or I’ll Fly Away. Man, those folks LOVED to sing.

And the end result, for me at least, was that death didn’t seem so terrible. It was just part of the fabric of life. And one day, I hope a little girl will lay a bundle of field cut daisies on my grave, and then go inside a church to sing her heart out while an old lady with blue hair does her best with an out-of-tune piano.