Funeral Traditions You’ll Find Only in the South

Southerners know how to throw a proper send off.

At the first sign of a wedding or a baby shower, Southerners are known to quickly transform into a Navy SEAL team of hospitality, deploying casseroles, strategizing seating charts, polishing silverware. Funerals are no exception. In the words of Mississippi authors Gayden Metcalfe and Charlotte Hays, being dead is no excuse.

From the penultimate potlucks of the Delta to jazz funerals in New Orleans, the South rarely lets anyone go quietly into that good night. The deceased aren’t just mourned, they’re celebrated and continue to be even after the fact. It is indeed hard to be forgotten when your headstone is a bronze statue of yourself running in a marathon, complete with realistic tennis shoes.

These five Southern funeral traditions still continue today.

Tomato Aspic, Ham Biscuits, and Repast

When condolences are hard to express and words don’t seem to measure up to loss, there is food. While the casserole remains the unspoken Southern response to the call of how can I help? or what can I bring?, funeral food differs between micro regions from ham biscuits in Virginia to tomato aspic in the Delta. In fact, tomato aspic is so important at funerals in western Mississippi that Metcalfe and Hays joke in Being Dead is No Excuse that you can’t obtain a death certificate if you bury any self-respecting Deltan without aspic and homemade mayonnaise. Repast, a tradition within the African American community, takes the potluck to the next level with an all-out, sit-down spread that gives mourners an opportunity to gather and celebrate their loved one. In either case, food is rarely catered, but instead made by family members and friends. One Southern Living editor’s grandmother even made a hot chicken salad casserole to be eaten at her own funeral. “She did not want us having a gathering at her house where she didn’t contribute anything,” she says.

Second Lines

When a musician or a prominent figure passes away in New Orleans, the community picks up their trumpets, trombones, and tubas, and gets to dancing. Instead of a dirge, musicians play up-tempo brass band tunes like “As the Saints Go Marching In” as the procession follows the hearse as it makes its way to the cemetery or funeral home. In the past year, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band has held ceremonial second lines for beloved artists Prince and David Bowie.

Extreme Personalization

In some parts of the South, it’s not uncommon to be buried with a few of your favorite things. When another Southern Living editor’s father died, he had requested to be buried with a watermelon and 6-pack of Budweiser. My own grandfather was sent off with a bottle of Mountain Dew, his beverage of choice. In the June 2014 issue of Southern Calls, a magazine completely devoted to Southern funeral directors (Yes. Seriously.), their cover story featured the funeral of Ardell Lanier who owned a hardware business in Lexington, North Carolina. His wake was held at the hardware store with 5-gallon buckets of long stem roses placed at the door. As for cemeteries, while most people might place a modest bouquet at the headstone of a loved one, Southerners will go as far as arranging a lit, live Christmas tree complete with a generator or in William Faulkner’s case, leaving behind full bottles of Jameson whiskey.

Country Wakes

Although much less commonly practiced, in rural areas, especially Appalachia, where funeral homes are not conveniently located, family members traditionally hold wakes for the deceased in their own homes, often staying up with the body for the whole night and sometimes for days at a time.

Particular Floral Arrangements

A standard floral arrangement at a Southern funeral rarely cuts it. At famed football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant’s funeral in 1983, a 4-foot tall script letter “A” for the University of Alabama and an equally large version of his trademark hounds tooth fedora made out of 2,400 red and white carnations stood next to his coffin. One of our staffers may have attended a funeral with a blue toy phone attached to an oversized wreath bearing the message “Jesus called and Paw Paw answered.” Although most Southerners don’t always go for such graphic representations, many will gather flowers from their own properties to construct a meaningful arrangement. Many would wish their exit to coincide with the camellia blooms, but Southern greenery like magnolia leaves, abelia or nandina make for fitting floral choices in the winter.
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