Southerners are never more distinctive—or expressive—than when we are burying our dead. From the clothes we wear to our driving etiquette en route to the cemetery to the covered dishes we prepare, there are rules. (You do NOT want to cross the church hostesses.) Our sense of "how it's done" even applies to the music for funeral services in the South.
We are, by nature, a spiritual people. And so we speak of death not as the end of a life but as the beginning of a return journey home, where we belong. Our people don’t die—they go on to Glory. And we like for our funeral songs to reflect that, particularly in the Southern Baptist Church and other evangelical Christian denominations.
There are classics of the faith that make an appearance at just about every Southern funeral service: “Amazing Grace,” “How Great Thou Art,” “Rock of Ages,” “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” “In the Garden,” and “Sweet Hour of Prayer,” to name a few. Classic funeral hymns are especially revered by Southerners who believe that nothing worth singing has been written since the Great Depression. When it comes to grieving, they want to hear the old funeral hymns—or at least songs that sound like they’re old. And if you dig down into the great treasure chest of old-time Southern funeral music, certain categories will emerge:
There’s a river crossing up ahead.
The Jordan River, our favorite symbol for the barrier between this earthly plain and heaven above, appears again and again in our funeral music: “Far Side Banks of Jordan,” “Crossing Chilly Jordan,” “I Won’t Have to Cross Jordan Alone,” and “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks.” Which brings us to . . .
What’s the forecast?
It makes sense for weather to have a meaningful part in our death rituals because it plays such a dramatic role in daily life down South. The rising and setting of the sun, storm clouds, and high water—no wonder we see connections between the skies above and what’s above the skies. Especially in the rural, agricultural South, you’ll hear songs like “Beyond the Sunset,” “Sunset is Coming But the Sunrise We’ll See,” “The Unclouded Day,” “Over the Sunset Mountains,” “Higher Ground,” and “He Will Roll You Over the Tide.”
We need transportation to get us Up Yonder.
Death is not our destination but a mere stop on our journey to our heavenly home, which is "bright and fair," and we're eager to be "travelin’ on." We’re ready to go—but we will need some form of transportation to get there: “The Old Gospel Ship” (we're "gonna take a trip" on it), “Life’s Railway to Heaven,” and “I’ll Fly Away” (which can be sung with rousing jubilation or quiet, plaintive reflection, depending on how the family’s holding up). Either way, everybody in the congregation will feel ready to take flight.
Heaven has real estate.
We take comfort in describing our eternal hereafter in terms that are concrete and familiar to us; hence, we love funeral songs alluding to Scripture passages that speak about streets of gold and heavenly mansions: “I’m Looking for That City,” “Mansion Over the Hilltop,” “A City Built Foursquare,” and "When They Ring Those Golden Bells."
We’re planning a family reunion.
Southerners still talk about Great Aunt Aurelia (may she rest in peace) as if she were sitting at the supper table with us. No wonder we love funeral songs that promise a heavenly reunion, like “When We All Get to Heaven,” “What a Day That Will Be,” “The Glad Reunion Day,” and “I’ll Meet You in the Morning.”
If you happen to be the church organist or pianist during a memorial service, you'll want to look especially together:
You know the hostess committee is watching. Also, Miss Bertie can go a little haywire on her solos, now that she's getting up in years. Be prepared to improvise.