With this masterful study, Alan Jabbour and Karen Singer Jabbour have helped fill a major gap in the scholarship on American folk ritual. Decoration Day in the Mountains radiates warmth and love, expressed both in Alan Jabbour’s gracious prose and Karen Singer Jabbour’s excellent documentary photographs (particularly the color plates). The project took form when the Jabbours were contracted by the National Park Service to conduct a study of cemetery decoration traditions in the North Shore area of the Fontana Dam in western [End Page 98] North Carolina. Undertaking the project, the Jabbours responded emotionally and intellectually to their research, the grave decoration events, and the people involved, whom they refer to as “heroes.” Early on, Alan, who provides the text, says that he knew little of Decoration Day (or simply decorations, as they are colloquially known), despite being a southerner. However, he and Karen decided to continue and expand their fieldwork after they fulfilled their Park Service contract.
Decorations are annual community events, most often held in the spring throughout an area that stretches from east of the Appalachians to west and southwest of the Ozarks, as Alan Jabbour states in the Introduction (p. vii). Indeed, similar events are occasionally held in the northern United States and even in parts of Canada. The Jabbours’ work focuses primarily on western North Carolina where, for reasons discussed below, the tradition is especially strong. These community events bring together families, friends, and neighbors to honor, remember, and respect the deceased members of the community. Local cemeteries are tended, weeded, and cleaned in advance of the day. A decoration often includes a religious service of some kind, with prayer, song, and reflection, all at the cemetery, followed later by a “picnic on the ground” after the flowers have been distributed to every grave in the cemetery. The picnics on the ground are usually potlucks and may indeed be held on the ground if tables are not available. The Jabbours document, both visually and in prose, the many types of burial styles: mounded graves, or flat with gravel, dirt, or grass; and of decoration: single-row flower arrangements, patterned, or blanketing the grave. Particularly compelling is the ethos that no grave be forgotten—people are concerned to see to it that all burial sites display signs of adornment and remembrance.
While Decoration Day is comparable to similar activities associated with All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day in Europe and Central and South America, the Jabbours point out that unlike those traditions, Decoration Day is a moveable feast. It is not held on a fixed church-calendar date. Indeed, local communities often coordinate scheduling the events with neighboring cemeteries so that people may attend more than one Decoration. Also, even though Protestant Christian religious services are part of the events, Decorations are not manifestations of high church holy days and feast days, such as All Saints’ and All Souls’. Decoration Day is a regional folk tradition organic to the Southern Appalachians, locally organized and locally produced.
Decoration Day in the Mountains provides general history on the tradition, consideration of its geographic range, and grounded speculation on its development and relationship to the similar “Homecoming” reunion events, with which it overlaps. I found the consideration of the relationship between Decoration Day and the national Memorial Day (celebrated on the final Monday of May) especially informative and quite reasonable. Jabbour suggests that even the earliest reports of ceremonies honoring deceased Civil War soldiers show evidence of having been influenced by local Decoration Day traditions.
As stated above, the book grew out of a project initially contracted by the National Park Service. This is reflected in both the content and the organization of the book, which I feel contributed to a certain imbalance in the overall text. The Jabbours were engaged to document cemetery rituals in an area of North Carolina that had been flooded and its residents relocated in the 1940s as...