For many people, Memorial Day is simply a day off from work and the unofficial start of the summer season. And, of course, students attending various schools are not complaining about the extra day off, either.
Although the holiday was originally meant to honor the graves of military veterans of war, there is much more I'd like to relate concerning a day when more graveyards are likely visited than any other time of the year, and for good cause.
Growing up as a child, a death in my coal camp community was a time of gloom and sadness, and a time when one recognized the reality of life versus death. When the Death Angel arrived, it seemed as if the world stood still until the deceased was finally laid to rest.
My first experience of dealing with death was when I was a very young child and my second cousin (Delbert Jay) had drowned along with his Mud Fork friend when the two were swimming together at a pond or lake at some place that I don't even remember. What I do remember about their deaths is that somehow the funeral home delivered the bodies to the wrong families and that it was a good while before anybody realized the embarrassing mistake. Grief stricken families remained stoic in dealing with the confusion.
Of course, those were the days when the deceased were frequently taken to people's homes after embalmment and the bodies viewed there (sometimes for several days) before internment. My second encounter with the deceased came while an elderly lady was being viewed by friends and family at the small home she had rented from my grandparents at Verdunville prior to her death.
I only knew her as Mrs. Perdue, but she was the mother of Carlos Perdue, our coal camp neighbor. I recall stepping up to the casket and - being the curious kid that I was - placing my fingers onto her cold hands. It was at this exact time that some adult yelled out, "Quit that!" Although I probably jumped two feet off the linoleum floor, I did manage to keep my bladder under control, and I've never desired to touch a dead body since that fateful day. As a matter of fact, I even dread funerals - anybody's. I don't even wish to be present at my own.
Politically speaking, funerals and funeral home visitation have over the years served as a kind of "gold mine" for elected office seekers, some of whom simply show up at a grieving time that often benefits the politico, especially when family and friends of the deceased go to the election polls. As for myself, I attend very few wakes or funerals for the above mentioned reason. One might say that I'm just not into "funeralizing," despite my enthusiasm for visiting cemeteries for historical reasons.
But don't get me wrong, I love Memorial Day and seeing all of the beautiful flowers and other things that grace the graves of those souls that have gone before us, be it family or anybody else. However, there is some interesting history that surrounds Memorial Day, which in years past was simply called "Decoration Day."
Family tradition and religious customs have always played important roles in our Appalachian history, but long before there was a memorial holiday, funeral services to bury the dead were far different than today and the mountain preacher was a central figure when funerals were held sometimes many months after the deceased was buried.
Many years ago in these hills of ours - long before roads were even imaginable in what was the wilderness - when death came, burial was a necessity that had to be done immediately. Sometimes it would be weeks, months, or even years before word of one's death reached relatives. Because there were few early pioneers that could read or write and because there was a lack of mail service to many places, when news finally arrived of a person's death, a service was arranged in which a bereaved family would spread the word that the deceased one's funeral service would be held at a certain graveyard or church, usually slated for the third Sunday in May.
As the word passed through the hills and the appointed Sunday arrived, friends and kin folks from near and far - bringing their baskets filled with food to help feed the many folks who were there to hear a preacher eulogize the dead, sing hymns and praise the many good deeds of the deceased - gathered to mourn the loss of a loved one.
Following the funeral service and dinner eaten at the church or cemetery, the mourners would exchange handshakes and bid farewell to each other, pending their meeting again the following year in May.
I have to admit to having never helped dig a grave, but I know plenty of men who have, and some that still do in certain church or family graveyards. Graves were hand-dug and guys would sometimes spend all day digging a grave, occasionally having to use dynamite - which at one time could be easily purchased at hardware stores.
What may come as a surprise is that before Memorial Day ever existed, the tradition of bringing flowers to a wake, whether at a person's house or the funeral home, came out of the necessity to mask the smell of death, particularly during hot weather.
Actually, graves are supposed to be adorned with flowers and tombstones and markers cleaned prior to Memorial Day because Memorial Day itself is a day when the graves are to be admired. Personally speaking, I believe it to be a beautiful sight to view a cemetery where flowers, flags and other decorations have been neatly placed. Serenity seems to abound and the heavens smile once the loved ones have been addressed properly.
There are disputes as to just exactly when and where Memorial Day was started, but it is only logical that the last Monday in May was selected for the holiday because that is when nearly all flowers are in bloom across our nation, although artificial arrangements have been and continue to be used as decorations.
There are different stories as to the origin of Memorial Day, but I prefer the story that defines best how the then unofficial holiday got its start on May 1, 1865, in Charleston, South Carolina, to honor 257 dead Union soldiers who had been buried in a mass grave in a Confederate prison camp. Former slaves reportedly spent two weeks digging up bodies to give them a proper burial as gratitude for fighting and dying for their freedom. A parade of 10,000 people led by 2,800 black children marched, sang and celebrated on that day in Carolina.
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, roughly two dozen places claim to be locations of the primary source of the holiday. Regardless, it wasn't until 1971 that Memorial Day was established as a federal holiday by Congress.
So, it is a great thing that happens all across America this weekend and tomorrow as citizens continue the custom of dressing graves of both military veterans and other loved ones in a time honored tradition that once saw young children simply roam through battlefield graveyards tossing flower petals onto grave sites to honor the dead.
Unfortunately, something happened to the local thought process at some point in our shameful Logan County history. Somehow, some way, government officials and county citizens in our history should be held accountable for allowing the 20-acre cemetery that was the grandest cemetery in Logan County when it opened in the late 1920s promising perpetual care for those persons buried there, to be abandoned by its owners sometime in the 1950s.
Many well-known citizens, several of which through businesses or political connections helped the county become a thriving place to live decades ago, have been ignored as their grave markers and tombstones are hidden by the overgrowth that has now encompassed the entire area. Even the veterans' grave plots that were purchased years ago by the American Legion for indigent former soldiers are difficult to get to.
I can find no history that reflects that anyone was ever held responsible for the theft of all the monies and even the records of what was known as the Logan Memorial Cemetery.
It is also unfortunate that the City Cemetery on High Street in Logan was for decades allowed to become overgrown, with numerous grave sites and tombstones no longer visible. That one-acre cemetery described in local history as "our cemetery" also is the final resting place for many significant souls who strived to develop Logan County.
What is most difficult for me to fathom, however, is why some 98 years later, after the most renowned feudist in the world was laid to rest with worldwide acclaim in 1921, members of his own family, as well as thousands of visitors to the Hatfield Cemetery at Sarah Ann, can barely - and with great difficulty, especially for the elderly - reach the cemetery on foot.
Family, government officials over the decades, and even the citizens of a bygone past in Logan County must take the blame for ignorance when the lack of a decent passageway with handrails and a less vertical approach should have been envisioned long before the award winning Hatfield-McCoy mini-series caused over 37,000 visitors to seek out Devil Anse and others at his family cemetery.
Should the right things ever be done concerning the aforementioned cemeteries by whatever means necessary, then that day will certainly be declared a wonderful MEMORIAL DAY.
Dwight Williamson is a former writer for the Logan Banner. He is now a magistrate for Logan County. He writes a weekly column for HD Media.