|Decoration Day in the Mountains: Traditions of Cemetery Decoration in the Southern Appalachians.
By Alan Jabbour and Karen Singer Jabbour. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010. Pp. vi + 218,
introduction, acknowledgments, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. $35.00, cloth)
Reviewed by William M. Clements, Arkansas Review, vol. 40, no. 3 (December 2009), pp. 127-128.
folk living on the river’s north side and cut off access for others when the only road into the area was inundated. According to
completed, and people whose ancestors are buried in cemeteries on what has come to be called the “North Shore” can visit
those cemeteries only after crossing Fontana Lake by boat and then hiking or using all-terrain vehicles. After years of
dissatisfaction, the National Park Service, which had annexed the North Shore into Great Smoky Mountains National Park in
study of Decoration Day in the region. A team of researchers, including Alan Jabbour and Karen Singer Jabbour, spent six
weeks doing fieldwork in 2004. After their report was published in 2006, the Jabbours continued to pursue research not only
in North Carolina, but, for comparative purposes, in other states in the Upland South, including Arkansas. One product of their
collaboration is this book.
Decoration Day in the Upland South is an annual occasion when people adorn graves in cemeteries where their deceased
loved ones are buried. It is the culminating event in a custom called a “decoration,” which involves cleaning the cemetery,
mowing grass or sweeping bare soil, and setting headstones aright and occasionally replacing those that time and climate
have destroyed. While those preparatory activities are often done by only a few dedicated individuals (and sometimes by the
National Park Service at North Shore cemeteries), Decoration Day itself has people visiting a cemetery as a community,
placing flowers and other decorations on the graves, participating in a communal worship service that includes singing and a
homily, and “dinner on the ground.” Usually scheduled for a Saturday in early spring, Decoration Day has been an important
calendrical observance in the Upland South, the Jabbours suggest, since at least the mid-nineteenth century. Sometimes
conflated with the official Memorial Day that is part of the nation’s customary calendar and has sometimes been called
Decoration Day particularly in the North, the southern Decoration Day honors everyone buried in a particular graveyard, not
just those who died in combat. The Jabbours argue, in fact, that Memorial Day probably derived from Decoration Day
observances that became formalized and regularized after the Civil War.
This book-length treatment of Decoration Day, by far the most thorough examination of the custom available, is a model
presentation. Alan Jabbour was responsible for the text, while Karen Singer Jabbour took the photographs. Black-and-white
images appear throughout the book, judiciously placed to clarify what the text says, and thirty color plates appear in the
middle of the volume. While many of the photographs can stand by themselves as works of documentary art, they also serve
to vivify the text’s descriptions and commentaries.
The Jabbours begin with ethnographies of two specific Decoration Day observances and then expand their treatment to
general descriptions of the custom, cemetery layout and location, historical and cultural context, the emergence of the
consciousness of the North Shore as a community, the history of Decoration Day, the event’s representation in various
media, and the individuals who have helped to sustain the tradition in western North Carolina. Though they maintain
geographical focus, much of what they have to say applies wherever Decoration Day is celebrated, including the Mississippi
River Delta. Moreover, the way in which they approach this custom–providing specific detail to ground larger concerns–
represents the ideal in studies of events of this sort. Their engagement with the community not only as researchers but as
contributors to the endurance of the custom they study presents a strategy for how ethnographers can relate to the beliefs,
behaviors, and people whose cultural expressions they investigate.
The concluding thoughts which comprise the book’s final chapter introduce some important directions which ethnographers
of expressive culture could profitably follow: the interrelationship between customary observance and community identity, the
sense of inclusive community that encompasses everyone buried in a cemetery even if their relatives are no longer around to
decorate their graves, the suggestion that decorated cemeteries represent a communally created folk art production, the
applicability of the concept of pilgrimage to the cemetery visits that occur on Decoration Day. One takes away from this book
not only a good sense of what Decoration Day is and means but also some ideas that apply to many other traditional events.
Decoration Day in the Mountains offers many features worthy of praise, not least of which is its physical appeal. The
University of North Carolina Press has served the Jabbours well. Of course, it’s necessary reading for anyone interested in
Decoration Day as well as death-related customs in general, but those who want to experience how ethnography ought to be
done, no matter the particular topic, should read this model work.
William M. Clements, Arkansas State University