Rice Cove Grave Decoration

We always celebrated Memorial Day when I was growing up - a day of remembrance and thanks that always included a visit to the cemetery to place flowers on the graves of family members who had served in the military. The visitation was usually followed by a picnic and barbecue back at the house. Memorial Day also marked the beginning of summer vacation.


Grave Decoration at the Rice Cove Cemetery, Madison County, NC 1977 from Sodom Laurel Album

I was introduced to grave decorations when I moved to Madison County and they were different than I was used to. I learned that each of the hundreds of small family cemeteries in the county has its own unique Decoration Day – all held on Sundays between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Prior to the actual Decoration Day, family members would tend to the cemetery – mow the grass, rake the grave mounds, and remove last year’s plastic flowers. On the appointed Sunday, relatives would gather first at someone’s house for a reunion and dinner and then move to the cemetery to honor the deceased and to listen to preaching. This wasn’t the case with every cemetery in the county – some were only mowed and others weren’t touched at all. 

I went to the Decoration at the Rice Cove cemetery this past Sunday. I was last there in 1977 when I had gone at the invitation of Bonnie Chandler who hosted a huge meal and reunion at her house. I made photographs at the reunion and cemetery, a number of which were included in my book, Sodom Laurel Album. Bonnie’s children and their spouses continue the tradition today and Sunday’s meal was every bit the feast it was when Bonnie was alive.

Preaching and Witnessing at the Rice Cove Cemetery Grave Decoration, Madison County, NC 2013

What struck me about the day was how little it had changed from thirty-six years earlier. Yes, faces were different – some older with more lines and wrinkles; some faces not there; other new faces in their place. The massive tree in the cemetery was bigger, offering even more shade and respite from the heat of the day. And there were certainly more graves. The road to the cemetery was improved and easy to negotiate, even with all the rain. But the placing of flowers, the singing of hymns, and the preaching and the saving were old and comfortable rhythms, as they were meant to be. In this time of seemingly constant and drastic change, it was reassuring to be in a place where the rituals and traditions remained constant.


Grave Decoration, Rice Cove Cemetery, Madison County, NC 2013


Heard at the Harris Family Reunion


I live in the past a lot of times. I go to sleep at night and dream of what happened years ago.

When we was coming up, the old people would be sitting and talking and they wouldn't want the children to sit and listen. They'd say, 'go off and play.' So, we didn't know nothing, unless we asked them, and it was very little that we could ask them about.

I did hear one time that Grandma and Grandpa run off and got married. He went into the Army at 17. He was a Confederate soldier. I've got his certificate. I remember him saying that when he was in the Army, he was going down the road and he found a piece of cornbread in the wagon tracks. He said he didn't shave much dirt off that cornbread because he was so hungry. He said it tasted like candy.

I remember the first linoleum that daddy ever got. Me and Howard thought that was something special. We got down and just sat on it and slid all over the floor.

‘You make a quilt every year and you'll never go without cover,’ Grandma said.

Like my sister, my older sister, when she lived in Washington, she had a neighbor whose husband was sick with cancer. And Laura was out hanging up clothes and she hollered out over to the neighbor, ‘Mrs. Cheney, how is your husband doing?' Mrs. Cheney answered back, 'I guess he's doing all right, I buried him six months ago.' And Laura didn't even know he was dead. That's just about the way it's got. We live right beside one another, but we don't mix with the people. We don't take the time.

I thought about it as we were coming up the road. I would like to have a paper and write down everybody's names, like yours, and your children, and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Somebody, some day, is gonna want that record.