July 30, 2017

Why I Love Funeral Homes

I went outside to walk my dogs the other morning and the fog was so thick, I could barely see to the end of my driveway. And it's a short driveway. Upon closer inspection, I noticed that the roses on the bush in front of my house were still covered with dew.

As a southern girl who grew up going to a lot of funerals, it took all of .03 seconds before I found myself humming the classic hymn "In the Garden." Depending on where and how you were raised, you may or may not know it.

I come to the garden alone, while the dew is still on the roses, says the first line. Illustrated perfectly by the dew clinging to the blossoms on my knockout bush.

And the voice I hear falling on my ear, the son of God discloses....as a kid this line always made me picture the voice as a string of letters and symbols literally falling from the sky.

And He walks with me, and He talks with me...this line was fodder for many a corny preacher joke heard during my childhood. The dramatic way the words are sung, and the fact that southerners are notorious for stringing our words together makes it sound like you are in fact singing "Andy walks with me, Andy talks with me." And all the corny preachers in the south said: Can anyone guess God's first name? [the punchline is supposed to be Andy...get it?]

This song, said to have been written in 1913 by Charles A. Miles, was a staple at southern funerals of my childhood. Along with "Beulah Land," it was one of those songs you just knew would be played.

In the funerals of my childhood, held less frequently at churches and more often at local funeral homes, there was a special group of funeral singers. Likely a small quartet of willing church choir members, “In the Garden” was always part of their repertoire.

I always found it interesting that the singers didn't stand up front in the funeral home chapel, but were instead in the back or in an adjoining room, out of sight entirely.

You could hear their voices, but never actually saw them. I guess this is because it was supposed to have been less of a performance and more of a soundtrack for the occasion.

Funerals never freaked me out as a kid. They still don't. I kind of liked them.

In seventh grade, I was best friends with a girl whose family ran a local funeral home. I guess because funerals are all hours, and all different times of year, it was more convenient for them to live on-site. My friend lived with her parents in an apartment that was above the funeral home, up a set of wrought iron stairs around the side of the building.

This never seemed weird to me at all. Her aunt and uncle had the adjoining apartment and she could go back and forth as she pleased. It created a real sense of community and I actually thought it was wonderful. They always made me feel so welcome when I visited.

Sometimes we went down the back staircase into the funeral home to say hi to her uncle. This wasn't creepy or anything to me. I found it very peaceful.

There was a big room where all the sample caskets were displayed. I had been there before, with my great-grandparents when they did their pre-arrangement. Pre-arranging funerals was a big deal in my family. My great-grandparents knew exactly what they wanted and made sure their wishes were carried out, right down to what preachers were to speak and what songs were to be sung.

In fact it got to be kind of a problem because after they chose the ministers they wanted to hold their funerals, many began to die off and they had to move down their list of alternates.

My great-grandma’s faith, Freewill Baptist, dictated that a woman’s hair was her crowning glory, so naturally she even had special instructions about who was to fix her hair and how nobody was supposed to cut it. She wanted a baby blue casket, "to match her eyes." We didn't try to remind her that her eyes would likely be closed at that point, but oh well.

One of the first times I encountered death as a child and old enough to understand it, was when my great-great uncle Willie passed away. It was 1988 and I was six years old. We hadn't been close but he was one of those people who was just there for as long as I could remember. Not part of my daily life, but always a fixture at family reunions or other special gatherings.

I remember hearing my parents talking about the fact that he had died. "Wait, what?" Uncle Willie died, my mom said. This news hit me like a Mack Truck. I burst into tears, feeling sad all the way down into my toes. We had been sitting in our car, in the driveway of my grandparents house on Walnut Street. I couldn't believe something so awful could happen. And what’s more, I couldn’t believe how sad I felt about it. Even at age six, I realized I was growing up.

There'd be other deaths. Extended family members and family friends. My parents didn't always take me to the funeral home, but many times they did. And I liked it. Funeral homes could be such peaceful places. And I had such a big extended family, it was always like a reunion of sorts.

"You're growing like a weed," they'd say. "Such a grow’d up girl. I wish't we all got to see one another more than just at funerals."

And the food. There was nothing like funeral home food at the small town southern funeral homes of my childhood. Big ol' trays of cut up veggies and fruit, sandwich platters and buckets of fried chicken, giant bags of Ruffles potato chips and tubs of sour cream and onion dip. And desserts, both homemade and store-bought. Every different kind of Coke you could drink, even Pepsi and Dr. Pepper which we never had at home. You could eat whatever you wanted, whenever you wanted to.

And there were kind people who wanted to do nice things for you to make you feel better because you were sad. Honey, can I get ‘chew a cold drank? Well, I do believe you can.

And the Kleenex! At funerals home of my youth, there were boxes of Kleenex everywhere! On virtually every surface, near a little always full bowl of mints you could help yourself to. And not just the bright yellow Kroger brand box with the thin, scratchy facial tissues inside. These were thick, plush pillowy sheets of softness, housed in boxes with beautiful designs or perhaps even under a brass tissue box cover. As a kid, Kleenex was much too much of a luxury at my house and something my parents never bought. If you had a sinus infection or a bout of allergies, you'd carry around a roll of toilet paper from room to room.

Of course as I got older and more close relatives and friends started to die, funerals were not something to look forward to. When I was born, all my grandparents and great-grandparents were still alive. Once I hit high school, my great grands started to pass away. One by one, each year or so. Those funerals were much tougher...not only because I loved them dearly and they had been such integral parts of my life, but also because on one particular side of the family there were some strained relationships. By the time my granny passed away, one faction of the family wasn't exactly friendly to the other and it created some awkwardness at the funeral. But we muddled through.

I guess in a way a funeral is like the last thing you can really do for a person. This is why I stood, along with other members of my family, for hours on end in a receiving line as hundreds of people attended a visitation and paid their respect for my great grandpa. An old time country preacher who had lived in the area all of his 96 years, he knew everybody. And he was from a time when people still went to funerals, or at least to visitation. When just showing up really meant something.

We stood there at the front of the chapel, near his open casket, letting people file through, shake our hands, and hug our necks for hours. And tell us how good he looked.

No matter how tired I felt, or how much my feet hurt in my pointy toed shoes, it was so comforting to have all those people tell me what my grandfather had meant to them. To hear them recount stories of how he’d baptized their father, or married their parents, or held their own grandpa’s funeral. And how he had always been there for them. And how they just wanted us to know that it made a difference in their lives.

And the entire time, I thought "This is exactly what he would have wanted me to do. What he would have expected us to do." And it was something I could do for him. So that’s what I did.

Death doesn't have to be scary or weird. Even though it's sad. And funeral homes don't have to be creepy places. Sometimes they can bring real comfort. Especially when it feels like the one you loved is being honored and celebrated. When there’s a loss of somebody who meant the world to you, it’s okay to want to mark the event in some way. To come together with others who knew and loved the dearly departed. To cry together, tell stories together and just remember. And I guess for me that’s what funeral homes are for. A place where the life of somebody who mattered is recognized.

[image via Library of Congress Digital Repository