We can’t let Aunt Mertis go without first observing these rituals.
Nobody does death like the South. For starters, this is the Bible Belt, so many of us view the separation between the bereaved and the departed as a temporary state. That keeps the door between here and, well, “there” sort of propped open. Many a Sunday afternoon, I’ve listened to my mother and her siblings try to figure out if they’ll know each other in heaven. And after everybody else would offer his or her theological perspective, Mama would settle the question her way: “Well, I just believe we’re gonna know each other. Who wants coffee?”
When a loved one passes (BTW, Southerners don’t die–we pass away, cross over, leave this mortal world, or go on), we take comfort in time-honored funeral rituals. Sadly, we have abandoned some of the old ways. Here are seven that we should always cling to—or work together to revive:
1. Funeral Procession Etiquette
Mourners drive from the church to the cemetery in an automotive procession, with all drivers burning their headlights. The cars they meet en route to the gravesite pull over to the side of the road to show respect for Mama’n’em. Anybody who doesn’t do that was not raised right.
2. The Funeral Dress
Today, it’s not unusual to see women wearing (gasp!) pastels, floral prints, and pants to services. Back in the day, my mother and her sisters had official Funeral Dresses in black, navy, or dark brown. The only acceptable accessories included a VERY understated matching fascinator and gloves (because we’re mourning, not throwing a bridal tea).
3. The Viewing
I once attended a Southern funeral with a friend from Up North, and he was mortified to see an open casket at the altar. But Southerners want to tell Memaw goodbye, face to face. And we want an opportunity to say things like, “Doesn’t she look natural?”
4. Floral Messages from Here to Yonder
My Midwestern sister-in-law was stunned when I told her that Southerners are drawn to floral banners that suggest we can speak to The Almighty through a plastic telephone that’s color-coordinated with (and affixed to) the gladiola spray:
“Heaven called—Aunt Sissy answered.”
“If you need anything, Mama, tell the angels to call.”
5. Food. Lots and Lots of It.
Nashville singer-songwriter Kate Campbell has a song called “Funeral Food” with this zinger: “Pass the chicken, pass the pie—we sure eat good when someone dies.” That just about says it all.
6. Traditional Funeral Soundtrack
Daddy calls contemporary gospel music “that temporary music.” And one of my uncles insists that nothing worth singing has been written since the Great Depression. There’s something to be said for the Southern funeral classics:
“Rock of Ages”
“The Glad Reunion Day”
“When All of God’s Singers Get Home”
“I’ll Fly Away”
“I Won’t Have to Cross Jordan Alone”
“When They Ring Those Golden Bells”
“Heaven Will Surely Be Worth It All”
7. Gone But Not Forgotten
We keep our loved ones with us—always—by telling stories about them when we get together. That’s why Southerners aren’t afraid of ghosts. We know they’re family.