In 1968 when Elias and Annie Barry died within a week of each other, hundreds of their relatives came back to Columbus, Miss., to bury them. Like other families at funerals, the relatives talked of how it was a shame that they never got together except to grieve over a family death.

But in 1973 the relatives did what most fail to do - they started getting together when everyone was in good health. And since then, the original Barry clan of Mississippi, which branched out to become the Popes, Scotts, Butlers, Richardsons and Barrys of St. Louis, Saginaw, Houston, Washington and eleswhere has turned every other 4th of July into a national family reunion.

Yesterday some 200 Barry descendants from eight cities gathered in Vansville Park in Beltsville for laughs, gossip, old stories, ribs, potato salad and a chance to see how the kids are coming along.

"The characteristic of this family," said Priestley Barry, 70, who traced his family's history 150 years back into times of slavery, "is that for a death, wedding or reunion they'll all come together, even if they're having some kind of falling out . . . Every once in a while someone will tell someone off."

The Barry's reunion and several others seem to point to a generally improved view of the family by Americans. The Barrys don't have a matriarch or patriarch with whom everyone stays in touch. In between the reunions everyone goes it alone, staying in touch with favorite relatives.

"Everybody's sitting on his own bottom," said Priestley Barry, who was wearing a white leisure suit, a black beret and sunglasses for the reunion. "Everybody is doing what they have to stay alive," he said. "But there would be a helping hand if the need be."

Priestley Barry was one of the first persons in line for a feast of ribs, roast, greens, cornbread, hot rolls and cakes of every variety.

"They (the Barrys) are an unusually large and warm family," said the Rev. John D. Bursey, of the Bethesda Baptist Church, where about 70 of the Barrys went to church Sunday. Mr. Bussey asked them to stand, and the congregation applauded.

The biggest group of Barrys at the reunion this year came from St. Louis in a chartered bus.

Ollie Barry, 56, drove his family from Saginaw, Mich., in his mobile home. Others flew in, and even though more than 200 people came, everyone agreed that half the family didn't make it.

Years ago, the Barrys began spreading out from Mississippi. They settled where they found jobs. In Michigan most of them work for General Motors Corp. In St. Louis and Chicago they are construction workers and nurses. In the District, there is a beautician and a policeman.

"Walter [the first child of the Barrys, now 67] left home when he was 16, before I was even born," said Susie Butler, a nurse. "Everybody just wanted to see more to get away from home and see the cities. Everybody was looking for excitement and new people . . . Now they seem to be looking home again."

Lonnie Richardson, the hostess of this year's reunion, and a resident of Beltsville who works at Wiggins Beauty Salon on 14th Street in the District, said she has kept in touch with her relatives since she moved to Washington in 1950.

"We would call or write once in a while," she said. "A few years after I moved out here my brothers came to visit but then there were long dry spells.I felt like I was getting older and losing touch with my people.

"This way [with the reunion] everybody can sit down and chat . . . Sometimes you don't get a chance to say a whole lot in just a couple of days, but it is that little talk about nothing really big that keeps people close."

Ira Barry, 53, a St. Louis construction worker with lean, powerful arms and the fourth of Elias and Annie Barry's eight children, said family reunions are becoming popular in his area of the country.

"I don't know about D.C." he said. "But down my way around St. Louis many people are starting to get together once every year or so. Something must have changed because I hear people from all over talking about reunions and they weren't doing it a few years back."

At the Barrys' first reunion in Mississippi the family all went to the same church service, then spent the rest of the day picknicking. At a second reunion in 1975 in St. Louis there were a few ball games played. This year Lonnie Richardson made up a schedule of events.

The D.C. reunion began with shopping and a fish fry Saturday, church services and a visit to the Smithsonian Sunday and the all-day reunion yesterday.

Willie Pope, a District policeman, and a grandchild of the Barrys who were buried in Columbus, Miss., in 1968, made wristbands and other souvenirs for the family.

The youngest child at the reunion was 11-month-old Tennison Bryan Barry 2d of Saginaw. The oldest person was Marion Guyton, 73, of St. Louis.

In researching the family's history, Priestley Barry said he found that the family had established a community of hoses and a church around their farms in Columbus, Miss. The Frieson Church, a landmark in Columbus, according to Barry, was named for the family of Elias Barry's mother, whose maiden name was Sarah Frieson.

"These family reunions make for some odd moments," Priestley Barry said. "I was standing next to a woman in line and I said to her. "How do you fit in the family?" She looked at me kind of queer and walked away. But later on there were apologies and I told her I knew she must be in the family to be here but I didn't know who she was.

"What could I do but ask . . . isn't that what the reunion is for?" he said, biting into another rib.