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 Paul Cowdell, Western Folklore, Winter 2012
to be handled, admired, studied, and read. Black and white photographs are
interspersed throughout the text, and at the center of the book are some stunning
color plates. This is not just an observation on publishing aesthetics. For a
number of reasons, even the most admirable of scholarly works do not always do
full justice to the glories of the vernacular decorative arts they describe. Karen
Singer Jabbour’s photographs beautifully illustrate and celebrate the traditions
under discussion and the illustrations alone would make this book worth having.
Karen’s photographs do more than complement Alan’s highly readable text;
their individual contributions should be acknowledged. At the same time, the
book holds together as a coherent collaborative whole.

Decoration Day is a remarkable southern seasonal tradition of cleaning
community cemeteries, refreshing and replacing their floral decorations, and
reshaping gravesites. The occasion is celebrated with a religious service and a
social meal. Unlike the post-Civil War national celebration of Memorial Day,
there is no universal fixed date for the tradition, which is observed variously
across late spring and early summer according to local community traditions.
Apparently originating in Virginia and the Carolinas, the tradition is still widely
practiced from east of the Appalachians to west and southwest of the Ozarks.
The research here looks at western North Carolina. Starting with the authors’
initial fieldwork encounters with the tradition, the book moves on to an historical
and cultural survey of Decoration Day, funerary custom in the region, and the cultural
make-up of the area, before considering the broadly political
questions involved in its observation and the representation of the custom in
popular culture.

The Jabbours document well the actual practice of the tradition, from the
tidying of the site ahead of the Decoration Day, to the laying of appropriate floral
decorations and the “mounding” of graves. These elements of the tradition,
including the character of the religious service, the “dinner on the ground,”
and the feeling of participants towards them, are all well observed. There are
differences between community and family cemeteries, which the authors chart
with sensitivity and aplomb, all the time keeping sight of the tradition’s “spirit of
inclusion.” I particularly enjoyed the championing of those individual volunteers
who have maintained the custom across the community. It is all too easy to overlook
the role of individual tradition-bearers in maintaining and furthering any
community-wide collective custom, and the Jabbours’ work here on “The Unsung
Heroes of Decoration Day” is most welcome.

The mechanics of the tradition cannot be seen in isolation. Historically,
Decoration Day sits in the middle of widespread political negotiations locally
and nationally, and the book probes these well. The Jabbours began their
research in conjunction with an Environmental Impact Statement on the
proposed North Shore Road in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. With
the construction of the Fontana Dam in 1943–44, hundreds of families were
removed from the area. Any consideration of the tradition must, therefore,
consider families now outside the area and the impact these events have had on
local cemetery use and observance. When the dam was built, there was a formal
agreement to build the North Shore Road to allow access to the cemeteries left
behind. Construction began, but the road was abandoned in the 1960s. Building
the road is still contentious, with environmentalist hostility now further complicating
the negotiation (and generating an additional body of hostile lore against
residents who want to decorate cemeteries). This is well covered here, with the
book really capturing how such complications accrue around, and impact upon,
any dynamic tradition.

Such complications are built into the very history of the tradition, and the
book offers a valuable exploration of them. The striking field research rests
on sound historical scholarship. There is a good case advanced here to suggest
Decoration Day predated Memorial Day, created in the North to commemorate
the fallen of the Civil War (and also known widely as Decoration Day), and
influenced the form and development of the national holiday. The argument
is based on geographic distribution and disparity in dating traditions. The historical
record is not comprehensive on the possible circulation of the custom,
but Jabbour offers a useful survey of existing scholarship and of the widespread
representation of the custom in popular culture. The chapter dealing with this
representation also looks at local cultural productions associated with the North
Shore and its contentious history.

The Jabbours’ study offers a sound groundwork for future researchers and
indicates many of the problems that will continue to be an issue when looking
at this tradition. It is an attractive introduction to, and a good model for how
to conduct a sympathetic field research project, and how to support it with historical
and theoretical background material. The soundness of its research has
much to offer scholars and students across our discipline. I found much here
that was wise and stimulating, well beyond my original interest in funerary and cemetery
practice. I hope other scholars will find this enjoyable book equally
suggestive in other areas.

Paul Cowdell

University of Hertfordshire
Hatfield, Herts, UK