EDITORS NOTE: We came across this article in the PICKETT COUNTY PRESS, the newspaper of Pickett County, Tennessee. It is the area of present day Pickett County where my ancestors settled after leaving Virginia. The author, Judy Martin-Urban has kindly allowed us to share the story with our readers.

Ask a millennial, a generation Xer or perhaps even a baby boomer what dinner on the grounds means and no doubt, you’ll receive a blank look. Ask a non-southerner and you may receive laughter.  Dinner on the grounds is a tradition of a southern past. It has gone the way of landlines, phonographs and refillable ink pens.

Alan Jabbour, folklorist and author who has thoroughly researched the subject of dinner on the grounds, feels the phrase stems from the idea of a communal, picnic dinner spread on the grounds in a cemetery. With time, the ground became a wagon, a truck bed and eventually a table. The grounds have come to include church grounds too. The event was generally connected with Decoration Day, or Memorial Day as we say now, and a means to honor the dead. Blogger Andy Davis says the tradition of decorating graves probably began soon after the Civil War.

 Traditionally, pioneer or earlier families looked forward to the dinner on the grounds as a rare social event. Folks made great effort to attend. Singing and preaching were sometimes part of the occasion. The womenfolk made sure the meal was always an absolute feast. Tidying up the cemetery, pulling weeds and putting flowers on the graves completed the day. To children the day meant running all over the cemetery, playing games and having fun.

Dinner of the Grounds Cover Photo

Cover photo courtesy of the author.

Today, honoring the dead and dining with them is mostly forgotten, but honoring the dead is a custom common to many cultures. The Mexicans have The Day of the Dead where celebration at the cemetery may continue all night. There is the Japanese Festival of the Dead. Of course, Native Americans have always honored their dead. In this country, the Southern custom of decorating graves on Memorial Day is not as fully celebrated in the North.

As a kid coming back to Pickett County for a family visit, I experienced my one and only Dinner on the Grounds at the Chanute/Campbell Cemetery. Let’s say I remember an absolute veritable feast set on a wagon bed and flowers being put on graves. A picnic in a cemetery seemed odd to me at the time.

Men and women at the local Community Center shared memories of Decoration Day with me. They said kids nearly always got new clothes and new shoes. Flowers were made from crepe paper or from toilet paper. One lady said, “The toilet paper flowers were fine until it rained.” The food was especially remembered. New potatoes with fresh peas, corn, lots and lots of pies and cakes. Fried chicken. Rolls. Everything always homemade. Gallon jars of sweet tea.

Research revealed that the custom or at least the idea of dinner of the grounds is not really totally forgotten, but sometimes capitalized upon in a merchandizing and nostalgic way. I found cookbooks titled Dinner on the Grounds, a CD by the Gaither Singers called Dinner on the Grounds, restaurants offering reservations for a Dinner on the Grounds event, and churches and communities reinventing the custom.

Very refreshing. Long live dinner on the grounds!

Posted at fairfieldsuntimes.com