By Chris Simones
The fourth Saturday of July is Decoration Day at Smyrna Cemetery and that’s where you’ll find Randy England on that day every year for about the last 30 years.
“We have got, in my opinion, one of the prettiest cemeteries around here,” England said proudly last Saturday.
England is the current president of the Smyrna Cemetery Committee, a position he took over last year when longtime president James Tittsworth retired from the position after serving for 39 years.
“The pay didn’t raise one bit over the years,” Tittsworth laughed. “When I first started out we cooked hamburgers under a hickory tree over there by the church,” Tittsworth said from the shade of the pavilion where Decoration Day festivities happen now.
“In the mid-1990s we moved across the street to the cemetery and did the cooking there. We raised a stink by doing that,” said Tittsworth with a twinkle in his eye. “A couple of families complained. They thought it was disrespectful to cook in the cemetery. Heck, I was just looking for some shade,” he chuckled.
“We’d head down to Fairview after we cooked hamburgers and have a pie supper and a cakewalk,” Tittsworth said. “We’d auction off pies and cakes and other things that people donated to raise money for the cemetery.”
Nowadays the cooking takes place in a nice, clean, well-equipped, air-conditioned kitchen attached to the pavilion and staffed by cheerful volunteers. This is the ninth year the pavilion has been in use.
Part of the appeal of Decoration Day is that it’s a great way for old friends and family to gather and reminisce. Since it is scheduled the same day every year it’s easy for people to plan for.
Another part of the appeal is to raise funds for the cemetery’s upkeep.
“It costs us $9,200 a year just to keep the grass mowed and I hope we make that amount today,” England said. “We just finished paving out here the year before last. It used to all be gravel. We also cemented right here by the pavilion. It used to be gravel and it was kind of dangerous for some of us to walk on.”
“COVID is keeping a lot of people away this year. Usually there’d be people all over this place but not this year,” England said eyeing the four or five dozen people in attendance. “Luckily, a lot of people have mailed in their donations, though. Some do every year but we’ve received a lot more by mail this year.”
“Heck, I wasn’t even sure if we should have it this year but we finally decided to just go for it,” England added.
The cemetery relies on donations and money raised from the yearly two-day event to pay for its upkeep and to purchase more land for the cemetery as it’s necessary.
“We always do a big dinner on Friday night before the Saturday lunch and auction and it’s very popular,” said England. “Last night we had choice of hamburger steak, chicken, or barbecue. They came with a baked potato or fries, coleslaw, roll, dessert, and a drink. All that for $9.”
“You wouldn’t believe all the desserts we had. Blackberry cobbler, peach cobbler, cherry cobbler, pecan pie, pineapple pudding, and banana pudding,” England laughed. “I think we had some others but I can’t remember them all right now.”
“We just bought an additional ten acres in the back over there,” England said pointing past the farthest row of headstones. “We kind of have a three-phase plan and purchasing that land was phase one. I hope it will last us about 20 years.”
Smyrna Cemetery Committee members had wanted to purchase the strip of land the pavilion stands on for some time but the previous landowner wouldn’t sell.
The current landowner happily leased the piece of land to the cemetery for 99 years for the grand total of $10.
Mike Fults is the current landowner and also serves as vice president on the Smyrna Cemetery Committee.
“We signed the paperwork on the deal nine years ago so I guess we’re good for the next 90 years,” England grinned.
No one is really sure how long Decoration Day has been an annual event at Smyrna but the general consensus among this year’s attendees was about 75 years.
The cemetery currently holds 1,871 graves with the oldest legible headstone showing a date of 1811. Not all the people buried there are identified.
“There’s close to 200 people buried here that we just don’t know who they are,” said England. “Some of the stones are so old you can’t read the names and some stones never had names on them. Then there are some we just didn’t know who they were when we buried them.”
“Up until several years ago, cemeteries would take turns burying the indigent or unclaimed bodies,” England explained. “One of the funeral homes would call you up one day and say it was your turn to bury a body so we would.”
England pointed off toward the Smyrna Cemetery sign down by Myers Cove Road. “The bell that’s next to that sign has been there as long as anybody knows, probably from the time the first grave was dug here,” England said. “Back when this cemetery started you couldn’t just call up your neighbors to tell them somebody died. There weren’t phones. When somebody out here died one of their family members would go down there and ring that bell.”
“When you heard that bell you knew you needed to grab your shovel and head up to the cemetery because there was a grave that needed to be dug,” England said.
Anyone who would like to make a donation to Smyrna Cemetery may do so by mailing it to: Bo Jennings, 74 Cobbs Lane, McMinnville, TN 37110.