This week’s “52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks” theme from Amy Johnson Crow is “Flowers.” I found this idea difficult to develop a post around, thinking on ancestors and relatives with flower names or someone with a history of flower-keeping. Neither idea sparked my interest. But then I mentioned the theme to my wife, who immediately said, “Why don’t you write about the cemetery workings your mom talked about?” Perfect.
A “cemetery workings,” also called a “graveyard workings,” was an annual, or sometimes semi-annual, gathering of people at their local cemetery to clean up graves and the property, to eat, to socialize, and to reminisce about the departed from their community. They were often held on the first Saturday of May. Flowers were likely involved.
A 1922 account of the event held in Nacogdoches, Texas (a small town in East Texas), wrote that “the country people assemble for a day spent in cleaning off trash and undergrowth and otherwise putting the neighborhood cemeteries in good condition. With the tools are brought dinners for the workers. All who are able to leave their work usually join in the labor for the dead.”
My mother, who grew up mostly in Texas in the 1940s and ‘50s, and for much of that time in East Texas towns like Tyler, told me that she and her parents attended these gatherings, but I never pressed her for more information. That cemetery workings were a thing my mother did in her youth was just sort of background information about her life. I wish I had followed up for more specific information while she was alive, and I haven’t noticed any photos from one of these events in the photo box.
In my imagination, a cemetery workings consisted of just my mother’s immediate family and maybe some of her many aunts and uncles sitting around a wooden picnic table under the hot East Texas sun, eating cornbread, sipping iced tea, and pulling a few weeds off their own ancestors’ grave markers. I did not understand the extent to which these were large community events, scheduled well in advance, advertised in local newspapers, and attended by many people in the community.
Participants would prune bushes, rake leaves, burn trash, right gravestones, fix fences, and whatever else it took to keep their local burial ground in good condition. And then they (probably the women) would lay out a huge spread of food for all to enjoy. Whether a church graveyard or town cemetery, these communities often could not afford to hire a more permanent groundskeeper, and so the community did the work in a festival-like atmosphere.
These were community events, just like county fairs, fish frys, lodge nights, and other civic gatherings. Politicians were often seen at cemetery workings, incorporating them into their event circuit to find supporters. This 1934 article from a small community in eastern Oklahoma includes graveyard workings alongside other public events frequented by political candidates to meet and greet voters.
A Tyler, Texas paper called the “graveyard workin’” a “hangover from pioneer days,” and connected it to the political cycle.
A Longview, Texas, newspaper offered a similar description in 1946:
Though the paper above noted that cemetery workings originated in “pioneer days,” one of the earliest mentions of such an event that I have found on Newspapers.com comes from the Crawford Mirror in Steeleville, Missouri, which in 1907 offered that “Notices of graveyard workings are inserted without charge.”
In 1914, a Grove Hill, Alabama, paper advertised a regular schedule of cemetery workings.
Decades later, cemetery workings were even noted as a way for genealogists to gather information about their families!
Cemetery workings were a distinctly Southern affair, and more specifically white Southern, and even more specifically seemed to be the most common in Texas. And to be clear, these were gatherings of white people to improve their own white cemeteries, and which were largely Christian. Like everything else in the South for most of the 20th century (and earlier), cemeteries were segregated by race and by religion. (N.b., racism and exclusion in burials extended beyond the South, and to other non-white groups as well, such as Chinese, and the erasure of cemeteries for people of color is a significant historical wrong.)
The widespread practice of cemetery, or graveyard, workings seems to have dwindled in the 1970s. This may have been due to generational shifts, as the children of the parents and grandparents who participated in them grew up and moved away from their communities (as my mother did).
Also, small town populations diminished in the mid- to late-20th century, again as younger people moved to larger urban areas to study, work, and live. In other communities, the locals formed committees to raise funds and supervise upkeep of their burial grounds, as reported as early as 1946 in Chicota, Texas, then a small community on the Oklahoma border north of Paris.
In 1968, the paper in Gilmer, Texas, where my favorite great-aunt and great-uncle lived (and who I am certain participated in cemetery workings with my mother) noted the increased number of abandoned cemeteries in that area of East Texas, along with the changing nature of materials left at gravesites, which perhaps mirrored changes in the consumer culture of that era.
Celestine Sibley (1914-1999), a reporter, columnist, and novelist, reminisced in the Atlanta Constitution in 1969 about the fading practice of cemetery workings.
Sibley, a Florida native who lived in Atlanta for decades, wrote:
“I’m a child of the country churchyard, loving-hands-from-home or no-care kind of cemetery and it’s saddening to know that these are about to pass from our society. It’s a fine thing, I’m sure, to have the assurance that ones [sic] relatives will have tidy graves forevermore but isn’t it bleak that it has to be done by strangers?”
She continued that “the old country method of ‘cemetery workings’ is more to my taste. … I went to some of these and they were perfectly delightful events, not a bit moribund as you might think.”
“Families with graves in the churchyard,” she went on, “came loaded with swinging blades and rakes and hoes and seeds for grass and flowers and, of course, lunch baskets. Everybody worked with a will through the hot summer mornings, cutting back tangles of honeysuckle and trumpet vines and trimming the grass and raking away the leaves. Sometimes, if the ‘working’ happened to be in the early spring, the sweet scent of cape jessamine filled the air and managed not to seem funeral at that.”
Sibley described how workers “talked of the people who slept beneath the graves they tended” while also sharing other community news while children played and couples courted. “When noon came,” she wrote, “everybody quit work and spread lunch in the shade of the trees. … It was a workaday repast, cold meat and bread and sometimes cold sliced tomatoes and cucumbers and buttermilk or lemonade.”
“And always before they left,” Sibley concluded, “the workers would straighten the pretties on the graves and read once more the simple epitaphs.”
To be sure, people today continue to gather as extended families and groups of friends to beautify and improve their local cemeteries, whether they have loved ones buried in them or not. And, as noted above, Black Americans and other people of color are rediscovering their own cemeteries lost to racism and segregation. But the widespread community gatherings known as cemetery workings are consigned to the past, where they remain in our memories as family stories and old newspaper clippings. If you have older relatives especially from the South, ask them now what they remember about these affairs before their stories are buried in time.
— Fred Dews
Note: The featured image is the cemetery in Linden, Texas, where my maternal grandparents and other relatives are buried. Photo by author.