Second only to sultry summer days, August is known for “Decoration Day” or “Memorial Day” for those who tend the many church- and community-based cemeteries in the South.
Itawamba County is no stranger to the time-honored tradition of clearing graves, placing new flowers and gathering for “dinner on the grounds.” The custom dates back decades.
Recent renovations to Stephens Cemetery Church just outside Mantachie were completed in anticipation of their Decoration Day. Family members of those laid to rest in the cemetery have met in the church since 1937. Keeping the tradition, as well as keeping the grounds in order, remains a priority for those who have loved ones buried there.
“Every person in the past that has worked to keep this cemetery up is now laid to rest here,” cemetery committee member Nina Googe told The Times. “This place is filled with memories.”
The cemetery’s namesake was Molly Stephens, who gave her land for its purpose. The original church building was wiped out in 1936 by the destructive tornado that devestated Tupelo and then made it’s way through Itawamba County. The church was rebuilt with wood and labor furnished by families in and around Mantachie the following year.
The first expansion was donated by Cecil Thornton with the stipulation that persons laid to rest there must have family ties to those already buried in the cemetery. Their most recent expansion was given by Duane Thornton.
Googe said she has many memories of gathering inside the small, one-room church for Decoration Day and the preparations that surrounded the event.
One particular memory she elaborated on was “scraping the ground,” where any sprigs of grass seen in the cemetery would be scraped up with a hoe. Googe said she vividly recalls being around 10 years old and gathering at the cemetery for the formidable task.
“They would gather up every kid in the country and say, ‘Alright we’re giving y’all a hoe now and ain’t y’all happy!’ And the scrapping would begin,” she said.
After decades of barren grounds, Googe’s father, Harold Graham purchased grass seed and gathered with others using hand held seed sowers to sow the grounds, ending decades of scraping the ground.
Once the grounds were readied for new flowers to be placed, families would gather at the church on Saturday night for gospel singing.
“I’ve seen that singing go on to midnight,” Googe said. “Then everyone would come back for Sunday service. There would be so many cars, you couldn’t find a place to park.”
Prior to Sunday’s service, committee members would sit at the gate on Friday afternoons and all day on Saturday, as they still do today, and take donations for the cemetery’s upkeep.
Kristi Wagster recalls days when Mooch Pearce would park his truck with the tailgate down with an old Igloo cooler on the back. He provided a cool drink of water for those who were placing flowers or visiting graves.
“He had those cone-shaped cups and us kids thought that was the grandest thing to get one of those cups,” she said.
After the Sunday morning service, attendees still gather around the concrete tables that sit beneath the large oak trees next to the cemetery. Memories are as plentiful as the favorite dishes that stretch for yards down the table’s lengthy path.
Wagster also recalled drinking water from Mrs. Corene Spradling’s dipper.
“She would bring a card table and sit a large jug on it for everyone to get a drink of water out of with her dipper,” she said. “I think it’s wonderful that her daughters, Inez and Dorothy Sue still bring their mother’s dipper to the dinner.”
Googe and Wagster noted other familiar family names that have worked throughout the years to make the Stephens Cemetery what it is today, Kirksey, Spradling, Wilburn and Poteet.
“There are just so many that have given,” Googe said. “We would not have the beautiful place we have today if were not for them. We appreciate all that have given.”
The cemetery now has more than 800 documented graves dating back to the 1800s. The true number may never be known, however: The tornado took several headstones and the number of graves belonging to slaves are not chronicled.
To honor all who have served, an American flag is placed on every veteran’s grave in the cemetery for Decoration Day.
“It is one of the most beautiful sights to stand on this hillside and look out across the graves of so many who have served,” Wagster said. “It always brings tears to my eyes.”
Like many memorial church services, Stephens Cemetery rotates each year among denominations. Last year the Holiness Church held the service, this year will be Baptist. Singing begins at 10 a.m. and preaching begins at 11:30 a.m.