Thursday, June 6, 2019

First We Cry (or Laugh), Then We Eat: How to Funeral in the South

I'm not quite sure how funerals are done in other parts of the country, but here in the South, we've taken the art of burying to the next level. Granted, we aren't all as bold and dramatic as, say, the funeral planners in New Orleans, where they have jazz bands and professional mourners accompanying the dearly departed to their final resting place. But we, as in the rest of the South, still put on a pretty darn good departuring. We are serious about sending souls to the afterlife. And if we can't be serious DURING the funeral, we are at least serious about ATTENDING the funeral and EATING afterwards.

My earliest funeral memory was that of my Uncle Oscar. I didn't really know Uncle Oscar. He was my great grandmother's brother, so he wasn't someone I saw very often, if at all. Also, I was young, perhaps 7 or 8 when he died. What I do remember was going to his house where the body was on display in the parlor. My younger sister, Vicki, and I were very curious because we had never seen a dead body. We were also aware of the seriousness of the situation, because our mom had threatened us within an inch of our lives if we acted up. Plus, we were dressed up in our best dresses, with stiff and crunchy crinolines. A sure sign we were expected to act like little ladies.

So, with all the solemnity we could muster, we marched our patent leather shoes through the gauntlet of bear hugs from people we barely knew, up to the end of the parlor where the coffin stood, like an altar in the Chamber of Secrets. We were too small to see into the coffin without standing on our toes and we were too scared to look by ourselves, so we grabbed onto one another and peered in. As we stood there looking at the vessel that once housed Uncle Oscar, an amazing thing happened. Uncle Oscar's lips began to part. We both noticed it at the same time and looked at each other in horror. Nobody told us that the dead would try to speak to us and no amount of threats from our parents could have prevented what happened next. Vicki lost it. She started screaming, "He's alive, he's alive!" and made a beeline to get out of the house, as far away from Uncle Oscar as possible.  What could I do? I wasn't going to be left behind to have a conversation with a corpse, so I took off after her. I think it was a while before we were invited to attend another funeral.

I learned all about the importance of funeral attendance from my Aunt Minnie. She scoured the obituary columns in the newspapers with all the zeal of a teacher taking roll call. She took names and made plans. If things were timed just right, she could make the rounds of all the churches and funeral homes to pay her respects to the daily dead without having to leave anyone out. She was so efficient that she kept a set of index cards near the table on the back porch. Each index card had a different destination on it, such as 'gone to grocery', 'gone to Papa's', 'gone to church'. I'm fairly certain there was a card for every funeral home within a fifty mile radius of her house. When she was headed out to celebrate the life of a family member, friend or someone who just happened to shop at the same Piggly Wiggly, all she had to do was pull out the appropriate card and throw it on the table to let her family know where she had gone. Efficient.

Aunt Minnie would often attend funerals with her two younger sisters. Sometimes, something would happen during the funeral, some comment or event, that would dredge up an amusing memory or strike her, and her youngest sister, my grandmother, Rosella, as funny. The two of them suffered from the inability to control their laughter at such times. Just the fact that they HAD to be quiet and serious made being quiet and serious almost impossible. Their middle sister, my Aunt Lois, whom we only referred to as Lois, did not have such an affliction and she did not abide it in her sisters. She was stern and serious and expected them to be as well. She took her funeral duties with all the stoicism and gravity of General George S. Patton inspecting his troops. So, she would glare at them, threatening them with pain of death if they did not straighten up. But that just made it worse. The more she glared, the more they lost it. Shoulder shaking and snickers would subside into tears and snorts. By the time the funeral was over, she was so furious with them she was planning their funerals and they were ready to explode from trying to smother their hysteria.

This affliction was handed down to my sisters and me. We were at a funeral once where the departed and every single person in his family went by more than one name. I'm going to change the names here to protect the innocent, mainly myself, but the pastor's eulogy went something like this. "We are gathered together here to honor the memory of Jimmy James Smith, Sr. Some of you knew him as Jimmy. Some of you knew him as James. Some of you knew him as Jimmy James." My sister, Kerri, and I began to lose control. The preacher proceeded. "He is survived by his former wife, Eula May Smith. Some of you know her as Eula. Some of you know her as May. Some of you know her as Eula May." We began to snort out loud. Preacher continues. "He is also survived by his son, Jimmy James Smith, Jr. Some of you know him as Jimmy. Some of you know him as Leon." By this time, I'm pretty sure one of us was laid out on the pew and the other was rolled up in a fetal position. The struggle is real.

We learned early on that death in the family could curry favor with our elders. In other words, adults and friends were nicer to you if they thought you were suffering a loss. I'll never forget the time one of our neighbors who was my sister's friend took this to the extreme. For some reason, unbeknownst to the rest of us, six year old Terri Wingo (again changing the name) went to school and announced that her father had been killed in a plane crash. She cried all day while the teacher held her in her lap, trying to console her. My sister was jealous because she wanted to sit in the teacher's lap all day. Terri's mother was astounded when people began showing up at her house toting casseroles. Astounded because Mr. Wingo was alive and well and the plane crash simply a figment of his daughter's vivid imagination.

Speaking of casseroles, funeral food deserves an honorable mention here, because we are Southerners and we like good food. Food is comforting to us. And, no, we are not comforted by carrot sticks and kale. Comfort food is hearty and sticks to your ribs and other parts of your body. Comfort food is not fancy, it's familiar. Who needs more comfort than mourners at a funeral?  To that end, there are some things that are simply guaranteed to be served at any respectable Southern funeral. First of all, you can bet somebody is going to show up with a Poppyseed Chicken Casserole, made with chicken, poppyseeds and canned, condensed cream of mushroom soup. That will usually be followed by Funeral Potatoes which is some concoction of frozen hash browned potatoes and canned, condensed cream of mushroom soup, and green bean casserole made with canned green beans and, you guessed it, canned, condensed cream of mushroom soup. Apparently canned, condensed cream of mushroom soup is the cure to Southern sadness much like the hair of the dog is to alcoholic hangovers. I'm not sure how we mourned properly before Joseph A. Campbell began squeezing all the water out of his mom's mushroom soup and putting in a can.

Then there are the congealed salads. From Strawberry Pretzel Salad to Pistachio Fluff, rest assured that some jellied version of salad will make its way to the mourners' table. You can also have confidence that someone will show up with a bucket of the Colonel's best, Kentucky Fried Chicken. Macaroni and Cheese, Deviled Eggs, Pound Cake and Banana Pudding are other traditional comfort foods that almost always appear at Southern funeral feasts.

And that is how we funeral in the South.

Three Friends and a Fork
Three Friends and a Fork

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  1. Good article. I've heard these stories from Vicki.

  2. Good article. I've heard these stories from Vicki.