This week I attended a funeral. Like the wanna-be cultural anthropologist that I have always been, I couldn’t help but wonder what future generations would think of us if they were able to witness our most intimate and personal moments of grief. You can learn so much about a people by their traditions, especially the ones they practice at the end of a life.
The south is a wide and varied place. My experiences of it may be completely different from yours, yet we are both correct when we consider the region our own. Funerals are a big deal in the south. Not just by the way you celebrate the life of the person who has passed, but also in how you circle up to surround the living who are left behind.
In my south, funerals are visitations at the funeral home, complete with bowls of mints and boxes of Kroger brand facial tissues on every surface. Hunter green wall-to-wall carpet, and brass fixtures. It’s people who stop by the funeral home after they get off work, for visitation. Some go home and change clothes, but others still come just as they are, in their work shirts, with their name on the chest. They arrive and sign the guest book, while waiting to pay their respects to the grieving sons and daughters, spouses (if any), grandchildren and whoever else is left.
It’s little old ladies, nosy and wanting a peek at the body “to see if he looked ‘real good’” or not, disappointed when it’s a closed casket. It’s neighbors who are not at all neighborly, who come out of the woodwork to see if they can get first dibs on the old home place, when it inevitably goes up for sale.
It’s photo slideshows, looking back to happier times, images of childhood, glory days in the service, milestones, celebrations, and snapshots taken for no reason at all. It’s people who knew you when you were just a little thing, who haven’t seen you in a coon’s age, who wouldn’t have known you from Adam, except wasn’t your grandpa that Whittaker man who used to preach over at Scott Street? And you’re Glen’s girl? Oh right, his granddaughter.
It’s I sure am glad I ran into you, but I hate that it was under these circumstances. It’s people you never see except at weddings and funerals.
And funerals themselves are held at little country churches, that don’t come up on Google when you’re trying to get directions. Churches with double glass front doors that open right into the sanctuary, where there’s light brown paneling half-way up the walls, and pinkish-purple carpet. And an old fashioned water fountain, a rectangle of smudged chrome, with a shiny faucet and a hard metal button that hurts your finger to press. The stream of water barely comes up an inch, and you have to smoosh your mouth down onto it because you’re thirsty and you don’t want to have a dry throat when it comes time to read your poem to the congregation.
Funerals in my south are Blessed Assurance, Jesus is mine. And song leaders who tell you to turn to number 181 in the little red Heavenly Highway book, and all stand while we sing It is Well with My Soul.
And while you sit up in the sanctuary, crying not just for the one whose life is being memorialized, but also for the others you loved who are no longer with you, you take comfort knowing that the ladies of the church are downstairs in the basement, setting out assorted Corningware and Pyrex dishes, including three different kinds of macaroni and cheese, and four kinds of potatoes. Lunch, which will be waiting for you when the burial service at the adjacent graveyard has concluded. Complete with Taps and a 21 gun salute.
It’s hugging people’s necks that you don’t know, just because they are there and it seems like the right thing to do. It’s listening to stories you’ve heard before, and feeling comforted by the familiar.
For some, it’s just too much to stay and be comforted. And the very best they can do is get through the funeral service, and slip out quietly.
And sometimes it’s let’s all go back to Granny’s house, for old time sakes. And you go, and visit with cousins you never see, and reminisce about better times. Not knowing that in just a few short weeks they will move mountains to change the will, gripped in the grasp of greed and “it’s what Pa would have wanted.”
Funerals aren’t really for the dead. They’re for the living. The ones left behind. The ones left asking all the questions, often with none of the answers they want or need.
If a cultural anthropologist from the future came back and witnessed our funeral traditions, I wonder what they’d think. I wonder how much these traditions will change and evolve over time.
I hope they always have the macaroni and cheese.