Hopkins County Folk Lore
By Carolyn Buntin, Contributing Editor
Back in the days before everyone paid a fee for the upkeep of the cemetery where their loved ones were buried, people did the most practical thing by doing it themselves.
There were no malls, movie theaters, or variety stores nearby where one could spend a Sunday afternoon. People who lived in rural areas centered their lives around the community church and that's where most activities took place. I don't know where the idea came from to combine cleaning a graveyard with a church dinner but I would surmise that it was another way to bring people together for a common goal while participating in a little social gathering and fine eating.
Cleaning the graves overgrown with weeds, briars, fallen leaves and sunken holes was never, and I mean never, spoken of in any words other than "graveyard cleanin' off". Everyone knew from past experiences that it would be an all day affair and prepared accordingly. Women began cooking the day before the event. Fried chicken, ham, ribs, and beef roasts (southerners never said pot roast back then) were just a few of the meats that would be prepared. Potatoes, boiled, baked, mashed, Potato Salad, Macaroni & Cheese, Peas, and Corn served in every combination known to man were always on hand along with the ever-present green beans. It was considered a sin to show up at a graveyard cleanin' off without green beans. Great steaming pots of dried beans were watched over and stirred for hours. No one would have known what kind of beans a person was asking for if Northern Beans had been mentioned. The term was dried beans or soup beans, thank you very much. All the vegetables were cooked with great hunks of ham, bacon or lard as seasonings. Deviled eggs, cucumber pickles, pickled beets and sliced tomatoes were in great abundance too. Mounds of peach cobbler, chocolate pie, cakes and fried fruit pies of every description were loaded up in the car or wagon for their tenuous journey to the church. Heaven help the hungry child that poked a curious finger into the "icing" or the husband, though driving as carefully as he could over rutted roads, managed to hit a pot hole and upset the food!
My mother Glenna Buntin Dunbar, tells of the incident that happened to me when I was quite young. We were loaded up in the family car, a Model T she thinks, headed for the graveyard cleanin' off at Lafayette Church. The name of this church was and is pronounced Lay Fat by the locals, honest to God. This little white picture book church is in rural Hopkins County near Dawson Springs, KY. My older sister was holding one of Mom's chocolate pies when the car hit a bump in the road. The pie went flying into the air and landed perfectly on my head just like a cap. My mom says to this day that the chocolate pie is what did in my naturally curly hair. She swears my hair was straight from that day on. Makes me wonder what was in the pie to start with.
The church service went on as usual although sometimes it would be cut a little short so the work at hand was accomplished in a timely fashion. Pails of water, rags, lye soap, rakes and shovels were brought forward and the people began the hard work. Moldy tombstones were scrubbed with soap and water, holes were filled in with fresh dirt while the people worked with hoes chopping down briars and weeds that had grown on the graves. Old fashioned "weed slingers" the kind you maneuvered with great, sweeping motions of your hands and arms, were used to cut the weeds along the cemetery's borders and between the graves. Later on in years, push mowers were used and you can bet those who were fortunate enough to own one wasn't above giving thanks to God for modern day inventions!
Young children darted in and out of the tombstones looking for all the world like rosy cheeked elves. Hide and Seek or tag were the games of choice. Little girls with bouncing curls and flying petticoats could be seen playing hopscotch in the church driveway. Some of the older kids were always sneaking off either to get out of work or to take advantage of a perfectly good opportunity to be alone with one's sweetheart. They would usually steal away inside the church as this was the only place safe from prying eyes. It always amazed me that these kids knew the exact moment someone was going to come looking for them. Telepathy? Intuition? Did they post some other kid as a lookout? Under the circumstances I seriously doubt that it was Divine Intervention that warned them of an approaching adult. An instant before the church door flew open revealing a ticked off, ready to pounce parent, some pretty girl would vault over three rows of pews, landing seated upright at the piano while her boyfriend stood gravely beside her with hymn book in hand singing Bringing In The Sheaves.
In the earliest graveyard cleanin' offs that I remember dinner was actually served on the ground. The ladies would bring table clothes and sheets, spread them out on the ground, usually under a tree to give a little protection from the sun, and set the food right on top of them. Later on I remember rickety tables of a sort being used. These were simply posts stuck in the ground with chicken wire strung between them. Many a hungry child, tired of waiting to be fed would grab the wire table which was just about eye level for a sneak preview. Instead of getting first dibs at the goodies, he usually found himself bombarded with falling dishes of food crashing around his feet. There was always one kid, every year who managed to achieve this distinction and I must say I was that inevitable child quite a few times. About twenty years later plank tables were actually constructed and stayed on the cemetery grounds year round. Now that was living!
When the church ladies spread out the food, it was a sight to behold and it seemed that the mountains of food never ended. Many a tot with watering mouth and eager eyes was held in check by stern faced mammas, at least those of us dumb enough to stand near our mothers. The last bowl of food had to be in place where all could admire and comment on the ladies' cooking before the nod was given that everything was in place to eat. The men took off their hats and stood with bowed heads while the preacher gave thanks for the bounty about to be received. After the numerous Amens pronounced to end the prayer, it was finally time to eat. I remember that all the men were allowed to eat first. I didn't question it then, it was just the way things were. I also remember how most of the men would fill their plates with their own wife 's cooking. The little wife pretended not to notice but there would be that satisfied, almost indiscernible smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. I still wonder if the wives ever knew that for the second and third helpings, their devoted husband always piled their plates high with someone else's food. In the interim moms would grab their offspring, cleaning as best they could the little sweat streaked faces and dirty hands while declaring not to know how their child could have gotten so filthy. All the squirming child had on his/her mind was escaping from those clutches, putting his dirty little hands around a big glass of lemonade and plunging the lower half of his sweaty face into it! It was time to eat for goodness sakes!
The flies were vicious. Determined women stood guard over the food with flyswatters and dishrags in hand. It was a losing battle. There was no defeating them, they were everywhere and they were there for the duration. They got into the food, dive bombed into cups of Kool-Aid, crawled on your plates, and buzzed around your head relentlessly. One ate with one hand while the other hand waved constantly and unceasingly over the plate of food in your lap. The flies were there to stay. Better get used to it.
The men usually congregated together after the meal except for those very hen-pecked husbands who knew they had better sit with their wives. The talk centered upon crops, cattle and where I came from, coal mining. The women chattered about their children, first and foremost. Conversation also included who was getting married or having a baby and not always in that order.
Cleanup time was fast or maybe I just remember it that way. Left over food was put into one of the empty boxes it was brought in. Tools were loaded and dirty dishes were packed up for the trip home. Sleepy babies were deposited into welcoming laps. Tired, cranky children climbed into the back of the wagon or car, arguing over who was going to sit where, and love struck teens stared longingly in the direction of his/her beloved as the trip home began.
I recall the ride as being quiet after awhile with the grownups talking softly to each other. It was always a good day, the day of the graveyard cleanin' off. It felt real good riding home, my head nestled comfortably in Mamma's lap, the ever-present thumb securely stuck in my mouth. Yeah, I would be feeling good 'bout everything that happened that day. I think I usually drifted off to dreamland while Mamma patted my head, straight hair and all.
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Nancy Trice, © 2000