June 21, 2024
North Carolina
A Day to Remember

Boring to a child, a graveyard ritual involving seven generations of family improves with age

Extended families in the small towns across the Smoky Mountains of Western North Carolina are often connected to particular cemeteries. In summer, these families hold “decoration” ceremonies to honor their ancestors.

My family comes from Bryson City, about 10 miles from the Cherokee Reservation. Every year, I go back for our Decoration, on the second Sunday in June. It’s the family event that I look forward to more than any other.

If you’re looking for a mountain vacation spot, this is it. Bryson City is near Smoky Mountain National Park, Fontana Lake and the Blue Ridge Parkway, and has great fishing, biking and hiking. The town web site calls it “one of the best whitewater paddling towns.”

But I don’t know about that, because we never did any paddling. We tubed down Deep Creek, and went home with bruised butts.

Above town are roads that take you into the mountains. These roads are not for the faint of heart. Veer a little to the left, and you run into the mountainside. Veer a little to the right, and you plunge down the mountain. So go slowly; you’ll live longer. And unless you’re the driver, close your eyes.

Family in the Holler

Driving up, you’ll see lots of branch roads heading up small valleys or sunken areas. These are the hollers. (I know the word is spelled “hollow” but nobody I ever met in the state of North Carolina pronounces it like that. “Hollow” sounds like a place in New England).

My grandparents, Will and Edna Jane, lived in one of these hollers.
The next holler over belonged to Will’s brother. I think of their
addresses as “Will Howard Holler” and “Tooge Howard Holler.”

I remember days of sitting on the steps, listening to them jaw on about one thing or another. They never tried to be funny; in fact I think they were trying for “crotchety” (they achieved that too). But they never failed to amuse me. Those two old men could spin stories that would leave us in tears.

Once I spent an afternoon with Will at Christmas. He made me help slop the hogs. If you’re wondering … I don’t ever need to repeat that experience. I just marked it off my “gotta do before I die” list. He also made fun of my city ways, and my weak stomach. But my aunt told me later that he’d said about me that “she’s got some sense to her.”

The man didn’t give out too many compliments, so I wrote that down.

For Decoration weekend, my family members come from far and wide. We hang out in the holler for dinner on Saturday night and catch up. And we tell each other stories, each embellished to be funnier than the last time we told it.

We spend the night in one of the little motels along the river between Cherokee and Bryson, not in the nice B&Bs in town the tourists use. Then on Sunday morning, we head up to the cemetery.

Flowers Shaped Like Elvis’ Head

Church is generally suspended for the day, as the preacher and much of
the flock is down at the graveyard. Folks bring trunkloads of fake
flowers and wreaths. A few might bring live plants and flowers, but
the fake ones last longer. Most of these flowers are stuck straight into the ground.

My favorites are wreaths in unusual shapes. You just can’t beat a wreath of plastic flowers shaped like a guitar, or the head of Elvis.

My sister and I wander around meeting folks we almost remember.

As I age, I’m amazed at how alike we all look. And yet, people still pick me out as someone who “belongs” to my dad or grandmother.

During the wandering and socializing, we are all sticking the flowers into the dirt around the graves.

Feeling the Connection

The preaching starts at 10 a.m., under the big oak tree in the
middle of the graveyard.

I could call it a sermon, but that word doesn’t feel right. Catholics have masses; Lutherans and Methodists have sermons; we Baptists have preaching.? There is always a small group there to sing some hymns, accompanied by guitar.

Our graveyard was started in the late 1800s by my great great great grandfather Abraham Wiggins. His wife in died mid-winter, and he
could not get her body down the mountain for a burial. So he buried
her by the Laurel Branch Baptist Church, where he was the preacher.

That was the beginning of the Laurel Branch Cemetery.

Even when I was a little girl, my dad dragged me from grave to grave, telling me something about each resident.

Sometimes, it was the person’s history or lineage. Sometimes
it was a story that had been passed down about him. But he always
made sure we realized this was person once, not just a name
on a tombstone.

Now at least seven generations are buried at Laurel Branch.

Will and Edna Jane are here. Will chose their spot at the top edge of the graveyard. He told me once that being at the top put him closer to heaven, and let him look down on everyone else.

He could have been kidding but, knowing his personality, I wouldn’t bet on it.

As a child, I would get very bored about an hour in to Decoration.? As
an adult, I want it to last all week.

Two things always strike me. One, I feel connected. There’s just something about spending time with a few hundred people (living and dead) who share your DNA.

Two, there’s the beauty of the place. Trees that are hundreds of years old shoot straight up into the sky. There are lakes and rivers and streams that haven’t met pollution yet, and views that in other places would cost millions.

Not a bad place to spend eternity.

Demmae Wiggins is a writer who lives in Dunedin, Florida.

What's your view?

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Create your own banner at mybannermaker.com!

Hotel Reviews

Family Hotels

Cities to Travel

Get Instant Access to Hundreds of Work-at-Home Jobs

Want exclusive access to the hottest freelance jobs online today? Signing up for trial membership of Freelance Work Exchange gives you access to cool projects like these:

Fire your boss and set your work-at-home career off to a cracking start. Click here to get instant access for just $2.95.

International Response Fund