Digital Decoration Day
By Niki King
I came across a story NPR reported last year about a Seattle company that is creating scannable codes for burial markers. It said these codes can be placed on tombstones so visitors can learn about their departed, leave messages or record stories about them. A person needs only a smart phone and a free app to access the information.
I listened in rapt attention, imagining the possibilities for such technology at my own family cemetery. At this time of year especially, my mind turns to the dead there and their safe keeping.
Like so many others from the Upland South, my family still holds the centuries-old tradition of Decoration Day, which pre-dates the nationally recognized Memorial Day.
According to the book “Decoration Day in the Mountains” by folklorist Alan Jabbour, in the fullest form of the tradition, families from the Ozarks
and Appalachians gather in the summer to spruce up their cemetery, picnic and worship together.
Such as it is with us.
The first Sunday in June, descendants of several old families head to our ancestral homeplace, a tiny community in Southwest Virginia’s Scott County.
We convene at the quiet, mountaintop cemetery and beat back the forest with mowers, weed eaters and scythes. The graves of those who served are adorned with small American flags. Others receive colorful faux flowers.
It being Sunday morning, a local minister often preaches. The cadence of his voice pitches high and rolls low like the land around us. He punctuates his thoughts with thunderous claps that echo against the hill sides.
My favorite part is when mamaw would walk the rows of headstones, some of them old as the 1870s, remembering the people in their time. There is her mother, who was a healer and mid-wife. People came from miles around to have her charm their warts off with her special incantation. Her husband was called “Pidge,” because as a boy, he wanted nothing more than to fly. He once affixed leafs from the kitchen table to his arms and jumped flapping from the barn roof. He was a happy soul, who loved a fiddle tune so
well; he’d “dance the floors out.”
My papaw’s Decoration Day is a much smaller affair. His people are buried on the grounds of my great grandparents’ homestead down the road in Cracker’s Neck, Va. Story has it, that my great-grandfather found his son-in-laws so trifling that he didn’t want them to inherit his money. He buried it in jars around the property. A great uncle, who was a coal miner, fell upon hard times and brought his whole union hall to look for the money. They dug hundreds of holes to no avail. They left as penniless as they had come.
Decoration Day is literally a reunion of the living and the dead. Growing up, I loved it because it placed me steadfastly in the world. Because of it, I knew exactly from whom and where I came.
In later years though, I have honestly found it a source of guilt. I haven’t lived close to home in years and June always finds me busy with activities. I never can make it back.
In the years of my absence, my mamaw’s mind and body have deteriorated and she can no longer go either.
This, I know, is like a passing of the torch, and the gravity of it weighs on me. It is up to my mother and me now to keep alive the tradition and the stories of our ancestors.
But what if I forget the stories mamaw told us, or remember them wrongly? What if the brilliance of them is lost in my translation? My mamaw is a masterful storyteller who can bring the old ways to life because she lived them.
What if I don’t have children to hand the stories down to? Or, if I do, what if Decoration Day doesn’t resonate with them, because they weren’t raised in the mountains?
The French have a saying, every person experiences two deaths. The first when you’re body dies, the second when you are completely forgotten. I don’t want my ancestors to experience that second death under my watch.
So it is that I would love to affix a scannable tag to each of those graves. I would diligently plug into that smart phone app every story my mind can recall, before I grow old and forgetful.
Then, even if our family line comes to an end, and even the words on the headstones wear away, there that chip would be for anyone to find.
It gives me peace to think about.
I also like the convergence of the old ways of storytelling with the new. I like to think of my ancestors and their grim-faced sepia tone photographs living again in a digital form.
And I like the idea of all of us bringing a new tool to Decoration Day- smart phones right along with the John Deeres.
It would be just one more way we could share our past.