We are nearing the end of what I call “Cemetery Season.” That is, the season for what we Southerners know as Decoration Day for any cemetery where our relatives are laid to rest. You probably have not considered exactly why the decorating of a cemetery is so important in the United States and especially in the South, unless you are a student of the history of the Civil War.
Many of our customs for weddings, mourning and death come from Queen Victoria in the 19th century; even making beautiful garden-like cemeteries can be traced to Queen V. But our tradition today of taking food and flowers to the cemeteries began when there were so many dead and so many left behind to mourn after the end of the Civil War. Widows were known to mourn sometimes for several years. Mourning in those days was a social condition that imposed rules and restrictions on the mourner; but even in their mourning widows could visit the cemetery any time that they wished.
Have you noticed that decoration days begin at the end of April in conjunction with Confederate Memorial Day and continue until about the Fourth of July? The state of Georgia still closes state and local offices for Confederate Memorial Day. It might seem an obscure holiday in today’s world, but so many families lost so much that even a century and half later, we still hold to the time to mourn.
Among my volunteer opportunities, I serve as the secretary/treasurer for the Bethlehem Church and Cemetery in Slygo. And among the papers that came with the job are a couple of historical jewels which I will share here that give a glimpse of what it took to build the church that accompanies the cemetery.
The cemetery was the Cole family cemetery which had been in existence since the Cole Plantation had been around, sometime before 1860. We are told that there are Civil War soldiers buried in the unmarked graves there. In the 1930s the community made a move to build a church in association with the cemetery. The owner of the land, W. Polk Cole, deeded a piece of property to the community. A board and committees were appointed, and they proceeded to build a little church in Slygo Valley in the middle of the Depression.
We have a handwritten record of their meetings, and they even created a Bethlehem Bulletin which was “published by the Joint Committee appointed to raise funds and erect a building at Bethlehem Cemetery.” The only issue that we have was published Oct. 28, 1935.
The following article from that issue is entitled the “History of the Movement” and is reproduced here verbatim.
For a number of years it has been customary for interested persons to meet at Bethlehem Cemetery once a year, usually in September to clean off the grounds. At practically every “working” of this kind for the past number of years the matter of the need for a house in which funerals might be held has come up, and on one or two occasions efforts have been made to a movement to erect such a building; however, not until the present year have the people joined together and agreed that not only is the house needed, but that it is possible for it to be built.
During the latter part of the month of September of the current year, when the annual “working” was held, the subject was again brought up. A date was set for a meeting to be held, to which all interested persons were urged to come, by notice published in the Dade County Times, by announcements made from pulpits in the community and nearby churches and at other public gatherings. At this mass meeting which was held at the Slygo Church House on Thursday evening, September 26, it was suggested that the present building be torn down and rebuilt at the cemetery. It was decided however, to allow this building to remain where it is and a new building erected at the cemetery.
A Finance Committee composed of Shade J. Hale, Ed. Doyle, Henry Dugan, Earl Cole and Raymond Street were elected with instructions to make a canvass and report on October 24th, when another meeting was called, the amount of pledged made by the people directly interested in the cemetery. This committee, after making their canvass, reported a total of $412. 50 pledges with several persons agreeing to help but not being ready to state the amount. In view of the pledges made, and the promises of those not making a definite pledge and at the same meeting a building committee was elected which was authorized to draft plans, and proceed as rapidly as possible, with the erection of the same. The Finance Committee was to continue receiving pledges until all have had an opportunity to contribute whatever they desire. The committee elected to have charge of the building is composed of Dave T. Brown, W. Polk Cole, and Leighton Street.
From the book of minutes the work continued from 1935 until December 1938. The church benches and the flue for the chimney were the last items recorded at an official meeting.
Today the board of trustees rents the building to the Slygo Holiness Church. They have taken care of it as if it were their own and are constantly making improvements to the building and its surroundings. Only one Sunday during the year do the friends and relatives take over the church for Decoration Day, which is always the first Sunday in June. Most of those who attend don’t call it Decoration but “the first Sunday in June.”
Realizing that this article might not be of interest to everyone, but if you are an officer or interested party of another cemetery in Dade County and have a written history of the cemetery and its beginnings (or would write one), then please feel free to send
your information to the Historical Society. If we don’t write down what we know, then soon our heritage is lost.
--Donna M. Street