We love the Smoky Mountains. Wish you were here!

Decoration Day is a Mountain Tradition

Above, Peggy Medford places flowers on a grave in the tiny Conner Cemetery deep in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. ‘Decoration Day’ is a heartfelt Southern ritual that’s repeated annually in dozens of family cemeteries in the Smokies.

Peggy and husband Cledus gathered with friends Christine Proctor, Margy Trehern and Wendy Meyers for maintenance on what was once Peggy’s family land (her parents, Arnold and Meeter Bradshaw and family had to vacate their land in May of 1946). More than the cleaning, re-mounding and decorating graves  — one dates back to 1873 — it was a day to reflect and honor their ancestors who once called this area home.

Decoration Days are held throughout each summer along Fontana Lake’s North Shore and the mountains above. Because many of these once-accessible cemeteries were made ‘remote’ by the creation of the Park and Fontana Lake, which flooded old Highway 288 in the 1940s, the National Park Service provides a passenger ferry service across the lake for Decoration Days. You can find a schedule on the Swain County Genealogy Society’s website.

A visit to one of these remote cemeteries reveals some old-time traditions that some might find surprising. One is the orientation of all the graves — the graves face toward the Holy Land so that the deceased may rise to meet the Lord, who will be coming from the East in the Second Coming. Another is the ‘mounding’ of the graves, which author Alan Jabbour explains in his book, Decoration Day in the Mountains

Mounding is a Southern practice, widespread till recent decades, in which all grass and weeds are removed from the gravesite and dirt is heaped up into a long mound running the length of the grave above the body — short mounds for infants, perhaps longer for older children, and a standard adult length for adults. Mounding is conventional at the time of burial to compensate for the anticipated natural settlement. But in the South, this burial practice became an annual ritual associated with Decoration Day. The mounds symbolize the body beneath, and their annual renewal is both a reenactment of the burial and (because of similarity of decorated mounds to the mounds of spring gardening) an evocation of resurrection.

The book Decoration Day in the Mountains (2010) is available for purchase at the Swain County / Bryson City Chamber of Commerce and on the author’s website.

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