|Decoration Day in the Mountains: Traditions of Cemetery Decoration in the Southern Appalachians.
introduction, acknowledgments, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. $35.00, cloth)
Reviewed by Joshua Guthman, Berea College, for North Carolina Historical Review, vol. 87, no. 3, July 2011, pp. 360-361.
Usually once a year on a Sunday in late spring or early summer, families in southern communities from east of the
Appalachians to southwest of the Ozarks stream to nearby cemeteries to clean and decorate the graves of their departed.
They sing songs such as “Farther Along” or “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” listen to graveside preaching, and eat a ritual meal
called “dinner on the ground.” This is Decoration Day, a widespread southern tradition that is, as this engaging study argues,
a ritual of reunion, an example of lay piety, and a form of folk art.
For folklorist Alan Jabbour, who has written the text, and his wife, Karen Singer Jabbour, whose photographs adorn it,
Decoration Day is no mere holiday. Decorated cemeteries – their grounds raked clean and then strewn with flowers, their
graves mounded with freshly turned earth or topped with white gravel – become a ritual theater in which white and black
southerners act out the meaning of their deepest values. Consider the ritual re-mounding of the graves. The turned earth
seems to symbolically exhume and then rebury the body, cementing kinship ties between the living and the dead on a day
that often coincides with a family reunion or a church homecoming. Decoration Day rituals such as this have a distinct history
that Jabbour traces to nineteenth-century traditions from the coastal and Piedmont South – traditions, he maintains, that
preceded the emergence of the “northern” Memorial Day just after the Civil War.
But the heart of this book is less concerned with Decoration Day’s origins than with its changing shape in our own time. The
Jabbours attended Decoration Day observances and conducted interviews across Appalachia. They spent most of their
time, however, in the mountains of western North Carolina. There, for a generation, Decoration Day observances have been
at the center of what Alan Jabbour describes as a cultural revival. In the early 1940s, the federal government removed
thousands of Appalachians from their homes along the north shore of the Fontana River [Alan Jabbour: actually the Little
Tennessee River]. The river became a lake, and rural electrification proceeded apace. The government promised to build a
memorial association that runs Decoration Day boat trips to the old cemeteries, enlists national park staff in cemetery
maintenance, and spearheads an intensified and more widespread celebration of Decoration Day among a new generation
of Appalachians. It is a story of tradition and change, persistence and innovation. This book’s great strength is its ability to
capture and contextualize this cultural dynamism.