Remembering The Fallen: Memorial Day Traditions

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Guests

Alan Jabbour, folklorist and author, Decoration Day in the Mountains: Traditions of Cemetery Decoration in the Southern Appalachians, and former director of the American Folklife center at the Library of Congress

Rolf Kriken, sculptor, and designer of the California Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Bob Daugherty, president and founder of Honor Flight Historic Triangle Virginia

For most Americans, the last Monday in May marks the conclusion of a long weekend and the unofficial start of summer. For many, Memorial Day is more significant — it commemorates the men and women who lost their lives in battle. In the Southern Appalachian region, families follow the rituals of Decoration Day, the precursor to Memorial Day. Others visit memorials across the nation to lay flowers and pay their respects.

Excerpt: 'Decoration Day In The Mountains'

Cover of 'Decoration Day In The Mountains' i
Cover of 'Decoration Day In The Mountains'
Decoration Day In The Mountains: Traditions Of Cemetary Decoration In The Southern Appalachians
By Alan Jabbour and Karen Singer Jabbour
Hardcover, 256 pages
The University Of North Carolina Press
List Price: $35

Decoration Day is a widespread cultural tradition in a swath of the American South extending from east of the Appalachians to west and southwest of the Ozarks. In the fullest form of the tradition, people visit a cemetery where family members are buried to provide an annual or periodic cleaning. Then they decorate the graves with flowers and other symbols of affection. Finally, they gather as a family or community in a religious service in the cemetery reaffirming their connections with each other and with the community beneath the ground. The service may involve preaching, prayers, hymn singing, and a ritual meal known as "dinner on the ground."

Decoration Day — its practitioners often call the event simply a "decoration" — is a powerful ritual of piety. At the practical level, it provides a cultural motivation for cleaning and repairing a cemetery, which, if not properly maintained, can be reclaimed by the forest of the Upland South with astonishing speed. At the social level, it serves as a focal point for gathering a community, and it has long provided an occasion for community members from afar to return to their homeplace. At the deepest spiritual level, a decoration is an act of respect for the dead that reaffirms one's bonds with those who have gone before.

One would think that such a widespread folk custom, practiced by or at least known to hundreds of thousands of Americans, would by now have generated an extensive literature. But there is no book-length treatment of the tradition, and the articles that discuss it are mostly localized and limited in their perspective on what is a broadly diff used and greatly varied regional tradition. Further, the complicated relation of this cultural tradition to the national Memorial Day, which began in the Northern states after the Civil War, continues to confuse everyone from encyclopedia writers to local practitioners. This volume looks at the historical origins and geographic sweep of Decoration Day and presents some surprising connections and comparative details to help explicate its history. Decorating graves with flowers is of course an ancient cultural practice, but the particular practice of Decoration Day that we explore here seems to emerge from the mists of time during the middle decades of the nineteenth century in the American South.

Jack Cable decorating a Cable family grave at the Cable Branch Cemetery Decoration, Great Smoky Mountains National    Park on August 1, 2004. i

Jack Cable decorating a Cable family grave at the Cable Branch Cemetery Decoration, Great Smoky Mountains National Park on August 1, 2004. Karen Singer Jabbour/ hide caption

itoggle caption Karen Singer Jabbour/
Jack Cable decorating a Cable family grave at the Cable Branch Cemetery Decoration, Great Smoky Mountains National    Park on August 1, 2004.

Jack Cable decorating a Cable family grave at the Cable Branch Cemetery Decoration, Great Smoky Mountains National Park on August 1, 2004.

Karen Singer Jabbour/

Though this book deals with the historical origins and geographic spread of Decoration Day, its main focus is on a subregion of the Upland South where the tradition seems to be particularly strong. That subregion is a multicounty area of Appalachian North Carolina west of Asheville — Swain, Jackson, and Graham Counties and, to a lesser extent, the counties surrounding them. It is a region where two great mountain ranges converge — the Balsam Mountains and the Great Smoky Mountains. Here many cemeteries hold decorations, and local people are well aware of the cultural tradition of cemetery decoration.

Here, too, the tradition of cemetery decoration has been at the root of a tug-of-war between local citizens and the federal government that has lasted for a half century. When Fontana Dam was built (1941 — 44), a large number of people were removed from their homes in the valley of the Little Tennessee River and along the creeks flowing down the southern flank of the Great Smoky Mountains. The land between the ridge of the Smokies and the thirty-mile-long dam lake became part of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. A document was created and disseminated in which the concerned national, state, and local governmental agencies agreed to build a new road on higher ground above the north shore of Fontana Lake. This road would provide access to the twenty-seven cemeteries surviving in the lands conveyed to the National Park Service. Part of that road was built in the 1950s and early 1960s, but then construction stopped and the road gained a new and by now legendary name, "The Road to Nowhere."

Hymn-singing at Brendle Hill Cemetery Decoration, Swain County, NC on June 10, 2007. i

Hymn-singing at Brendle Hill Cemetery Decoration, Swain County, NC on June 10, 2007. Karen Singer Jabbour/ hide caption

itoggle caption Karen Singer Jabbour/
Hymn-singing at Brendle Hill Cemetery Decoration, Swain County, NC on June 10, 2007.

Hymn-singing at Brendle Hill Cemetery Decoration, Swain County, NC on June 10, 2007.

Karen Singer Jabbour/

How the ensuing tug-of-war developed, and how a new form of Decoration Day emerged in the cemeteries of the park's "North Shore," comprise a special focus of this volume and the primary focus of an earlier published report (see the Project History). Although in Chapter 5 we tell the compelling story of the North Shore cultural revolution, we place it in the context of the wider practice of cemetery decoration outside the national park. There seems to be a symbiotic relationship between the decorations within the park and beyond the park boundaries. Taken together, these two forms of Decoration Day make our region of western North Carolina one of the most varied and vibrant areas in the Upland South for this venerable and culturally powerful custom.

Excerpted from Decoration Day In The Mountains: Traditions Of Cemetary Decoration In The Southern Appalachians by Alan Jabbour and Karen Singer Jabbour. Copyright 2010 by the University of North Carolina Press. Photographs copyright 2010 by Alan Jabbour and Karen Singer Jabbour. Used by permission of the publisher

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