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'Decoration Day': The South Honors Its Dead

SCOTT SIMON, Host:

It's Memorial Day weekend, and as Americans prepare to mark the holiday, rural communities in the south have been gathering to clean and decorate cemeteries. It's a longstanding tradition known as Decoration Day. And as NPR's Paul Brown reports, a folklorist research indicates that it could be the predecessor to this weekend's commemorations.

PAUL BROWN: Alan Jabbour, the author of the book "Decoration Day in the Mountains," says he now believes the southern tradition of Decoration Day was the inspiration for northerners after the Civil War who created Memorial Day. One big difference: Memorial Day is on a set date, while Decoration Day, which can also be found in the north, varies by community.

ALAN JABBOUR: But on that day, everybody who's connected to each other and to the people underground convene and have in effect a religious service in the cemetery.

BROWN: And Jabbour says there's more than that - a picnic-style dinner on the ground and gospel music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'LL FLY AWAY")

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Just a few more weary days and then, I'll fly away...

BROWN: He says as entire communities gather, Decoration Day becomes a way of establishing spiritual connections between present and earlier generations. Will the Decoration Day tradition survive as more people move away from the old communities?

JABBOUR: The younger people, who were never born there, still feel now a connection to it 'cause from childhood they were brought there and it became this sort of special place. So, in effect, the tradition there changes but it's strong.

BROWN: Alan Jabbour says many younger people make long trips to their families' ancestral mountain homes for a holiday they call their favorite.

Paul Brown, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As a newscaster and reporter for NPR, Paul Brown handles an ever-changing combination of on-air, reporting, editing and producing tasks with skills he developed over 30 years working in radio and print journalism.