Friday, May 08, 2009
Decoration Day, the day upon which the living gather to memorialize and visit with their familial dead throughout the South, may have its origin as a martial holiday, Confederate Memorial Day, at a time when the population beneath the ground dwarfed the one atop it.
Others claim that it began years afterward, influenced by the annual observance of Robert E. Lee’s death at Arlington House, with rural areas of the Virginia following suit, then expanding farther, county to county, state to state.
Antebellum origins of lunching in the graveyard can be claimed by the odd stew of French, Creole, and Haitians living in the port of New Orleans, meaning that the observance may bear more of a religious mark than military one. Springtime, after all, is the playing field of renewal motifs of which Easter is but the most common. There’s also the practical consideration, being when flowers would be most easily found and prepared for the graveside.
Therefore, befitting a confederacy, little consensus can be found on the origins, or even proper observation, of Decoration Day throughout the South. This is especially true within the state of Alabama, who, according to section 1-3-8 of the state code, officially marks Decoration Day as the “Fourth Monday in April” to commemorate Joseph E. Johnston’s surrendering to Sherman.
Therein lay at least two sly jokes. The first being that Johnston’s strategy of “withdrawal and hold” helped, shall we say, create the demand for such an observance. The second being that, in the grave, we have at last found a location from which Johnston could not further retreat.
However, perhaps because of the nature of the observance or, more likely, because the proclamation came long after the fact, you’ll be hard pressed to find, from town to town, graveyard to graveyard, a shared calendar date that all will agree on. Early June? Late April? Easter weekend? Mother’s Day weekend? The answer changes.
Over the years, larger families with longer lives may even lead to multiple observances on multiple weekends at multiple graves. One for the in-laws, another for the grandparents, another still for the new blood. But new blood is a relative term here. The changing demographics of the region and the technological influence of mass media have reduced most things “Southern” to a quick way to sell biscuits at fast food joints. Soon, this will all be forgotten.
I have memories of large family gatherings, an aristocracy of a small concern, girls in organdy dresses and boys in uncomfortable shoes. Women tending to an endless convoy of plates and trays. Men disguising their entertainments in polite conversation. A grandmother, the family’s Rex Sacrorum, who instructed us to respect our dead. Now they all have their places and the places all bear their names.
Why do we talk to the dead? How can they contribute through their absence more than some of the living do by their presence? “Let the dead bury their dead.” Easy for the Comeback Kid to say; the rest of us aren’t playing with house money. If the dead can teach us anything, they should teach us our limits, which extend further than we know yet shorter than we desire.
In the language of the internet, “disposable” is a value judgment, not a descriptive. The website post or the Photoshop image or the video clip that made you chuckle two, five, ten years ago is still online. Somewhere. But you don’t seek it out because its value is exhausted. It has been disposed. It is a ghost. When we talk to the dead, they remind us that they are permanent.