Keeping tradition and honor alive

Keeping tradition and honor alive

May 24th, 2009 by Randall Higgins in News

Staff Photo by Randall Higgins Geneva Conley, of Murfreesboro. stamdomg and her sister, Bobbie Moody, decorated family graves Saturday at the 175-year-old Short Creek Baptist Church in McMinn County.

Staff Photo by Randall Higgins Geneva Conley, of Murfreesboro....

CLEVELAND, Tenn. - At rural cemeteries around the region, relatives came out Saturday to decorate the graves of their loved ones.

Decoration Day shadows, but is not necessarily held, on Memorial Day.

Some people laying colorful, mostly artificial, flowers on the graves at Short Creek Baptist Church in McMinn County wondered if the centuries-old tradition will stay alive for another generation.

"We came with daddy for so many years," said Geneva Conley. "We made our own list to make sure we get them all covered." She and sister Bobbie Moody decorated the great-grandparents, grandparents, father and other family members' graves at the 175-year-old church.

The sisters said they promised their father they would continue the tradition. And Decoration Day is family reunion time too, they said.

A week earlier, on a rainy and gray Sunday afternoon, dozens of people gathered at Johnston Cemetery in Bradley County.

"We had about 80 people, some of them over 90 years old," Betty Cartwright said.

She and her husband, N.C. Cartwright, serve as officials for the Johnston and Cofer cemeteries - he's on the board, she's treasurer. The Cofer cemetery, in Bradley County near the Meigs County line, is on a windswept hillside that overlooks green fields and distant mountain ridges.

Mrs. Cartwright is worried that younger generations won't take up the job of maintaining and preserving the cemeteries. The board is trying to save enough money for a perpetual care fund for each, she said.

The concern that rural cemeteries will become neglected is common, said Debbie Moore.

A teacher, Ms. Moore has found and written about small cemeteries in the region, some unknown to the people living in subdivisions around them. In many Bradley County communities, she's known as "the cemetery lady."

History Web sites show that Decoration Day began in the early years after the Civil War. A number of Southern and Northern towns claim to be the birthplace of Decoration Day as a way to honor the Civil War dead. But after World War I, it became a Memorial Day to honor all of America's fallen war dead.

Retired teacher Harold Reno said Johnston and Cofer cemeteries likely go back to at least the 1840s, when the first settlers arrived after the Cherokees.

Mr. Reno has done extensive research and written about the Cofer Cemetery.

"What some of the older Cofers have said is that the cemetery at one time was overgrown with a lot of bushes. It was really hard just to bury somebody there. ... They decided to start meeting to clear away the brush," Mr. Reno said.

That was also true at McMinn County's Short Creek Cemetery.

"It was all in weeds and bushes," said Bobby Carter recently as he looked across the manicured cemetery lawn and down into a farm valley that could be on a picture postcard.

Mr. Reno thinks those brush-cutting and mowing days at Cofer Cemetery may have led to get-togethers than came to be more like family reunions.

"My mother, who was 90, said she could remember coming and laying fresh flowers on the graves," Mr. Reno said. The families would bring food. Some people, from Hamilton, Meigs and Bradley counties, still do. In past generations, there could also be singing, Mr. Reno said.

"We have pictures of them standing there with their songbooks," he said.

Some of those who keep the Decoration Day tradition agree those memories may disappear with the people who are keeping them alive.

"The people on the committee have been trying for 30 years or more to raise enough for a perpetual fund," Mr. Reno said. "But the costs keep going up and each year it gets pushed back some."


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