Mt. Zion Cemetery celebrated its 104th Decoration Day on Saturday, an event which was originally started because of hunters with guilty consciences.
“Back before anybody kept the cemetery up, this was some of the best rabbit hunting in the county,” said John Nunley, vice chairman of Mt. Zion Cemetery.
“It was all grown over with briars and bushes and it was just a great place to hunt rabbits,” Nunley said. “Once after a couple of rabbit hunters had a very good day they started wondering if maybe it was disrespectful to be shooting animals over folks buried out there. That’s when they decided the most respectful thing they could do was clean it up.”
A few folks got together on the first Saturday in August of 1916 and cleared away some brush and that started an annual event that grew bigger every year.
Until this year, that is. Large gatherings are discouraged in the COVID-19 era and Mt. Zion Cemetery Committee members decided to keep this year’s event more low-key than normal.
“We decided not to do the cakewalk this year and that’s really probably the most disappointing part,” Nunley said. “We usually have 250 people participate in the cakewalk. It winds all around. We buy 300 numbered cattle ear tags every year and we just about use them all.”
“We usually have two bands,” he continued. “Over the course of the day we get around 1,500 to 2,000 people come through here but we’re not even expecting a third of that this year,” Nunley explained.
“Typically we have a full-blown concession stand but this year we’re having Hickory Creek Barbecue provide the food so we don’t have to take the risk of being stuck with a lot of food we didn’t sell,” Nunley said. “We’re only selling soft serve ice cream, snow cones, and soft drinks.”
The committee always hopes to raise around $10,000 during the event to cover the cost of keeping the cemetery mowed but this year they’re not expecting to bring that in.
“We kind of figure whatever we make this year is better than nothing,” Nunley said. “It might help a little with expenses.”
Nunley looked through some photographs taken at Mt. Zion on Decoration Day over the years. One shows two hay wagons totaling about 60 feet long and loaded down with food and a few thermoses and surrounded by 80 or 90 people.
“People came down here from out of these hills back then and this might be the only good meal they’d have for quite some time,” said Nunley. “Sometimes you might not really even know exactly what it was you were eating. It might look and taste like chicken but it may very well be possum.”
Nunley points to a well-dressed gentleman sitting at a picnic table. “If you want to know about the old days and the history of Mt. Zion, you need to talk to Lowell Haston,” he said.
“I was born in 1930 and I’ve never missed one Decoration Day,” Lowell Haston said proudly. “We’ve had some mighty fine picnics over the years. I grew up about a mile down the road. I even went to school right over there,” Haston said pointing toward the empty stage about 30 yards away.
“It was about a 35-foot by 50-foot room with 14-foot high ceilings and big windows,” Haston recalled. “We had one big stove right in the middle of the room. It was all the heat we had. We kind of took turns sitting around it trying to keep warm.”
“We drank water from a big well that was right there by the school,” Haston laughed. “I don’t think I’d want to drink well water from a cemetery today.”
No one’s really sure how many people are buried in Mt. Zion. It was established as a cemetery in 1855 but people had been burying their dead there for years. The cemetery itself covers about 25 acres.
“This part of the county got established in about 1806 when people started moving out this way from east of here,” Nunley said. “By the 1830s and 1840s a lot of people were already buried here but we don’t really know where they are.”
Nunley looked at the 30 or 40 people milling about and shook his head.
“Usually this place is packed by now,” he said sadly. “I sure hope everything is back to normal by this time next year.”
Donations can be made to Mt. Zion Cemetery by mailing them to: Mt. Zion Cemetery, 193 Lynn Road, Morrison, TN 37357.