11 Reasons Why Nobody Does Death Like the South

We can't let Aunt Mertis go without first observing these rituals.

Southern Funeral Traditions
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Nobody does death like the South. For starters, faith is important to many Southerners, so some 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 (By the way, 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 eleven that we should always cling to—or work together to revive:

1. The Attendance

It doesn't matter if you only met your neighbor's wife once, you always show up at a Southern funeral. Everyone will be there from all parts of the deceased's life. You may tell a long-distance friend that they don't have to make the trip, but they'll be there without a peep of protest. We can't think of a more beautiful way to celebrate any life.

2. The Behind-the-Scenes Coordinator

You might not even realize who it was until after the funeral, but there will be a distant family member, maybe Nana's second cousin, who stands in the back corner ensuring that those closest to the deceased don't have to worry about anything on the day of the funeral. Napkins, tissue boxes, drinks, and food platters will all be refreshed without the family having to say a word.

3. The Funeral Procession

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.

4. The Funeral Dress

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). Make no mistake: Southern funerals are still a fashion show, just like Easter service and our weddings, but more understated.

5. The Viewing

Nowadays cremation has become the popular route, but it wasn't always that way. I once attended a Southern funeral with a friend from Up North, and he was mortified to see an open casket at the altar. Southerners want to tell Memaw goodbye, face to face. And we want an opportunity to say things like, "Doesn't she look natural?"

6. The Guest Book

Just as we have a guest book at our weddings, there is also often a guest book at a Southern funeral. If we're expecting an especially large turnout, there might even be a backup book in case the first one becomes full of messages. Anyone can and will show up, and a guest book serves as a reminder to the deceased's family of who supported them in their time of grieving.

7. 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."

8. Food. Lots and Lots of It.

After the burial, neighbors and family will bring platters of every food you can imagine to the deceased's home, transitioning the mourning into a celebration of life party. 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.

9. Mourning Calls for a Little Alcohol

Sometimes a cocktail at 9 a.m. is just what we need the day of the funeral, and Mama is okay with that. You may even make a toast to the deceased with their favorite alcohol at the burial. By the end of the day, you'll also likely have to shuttle a few people home who stayed late drinking and swapping memories of your loved one.

10. A 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:

"Amazing Grace"

"Rock of Ages"

"Precious Memories"

"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"

11. Gone, but Not Forgotten

We're great at telling stories and making toasts to our loved ones – call it coping, if you will. Although we're saddened by the deceased's passing, we can promise that you'll never feel more comforted, be more fed, or laugh and cry more than you will at a Southern funeral.

We keep our loved ones with us—always—by telling stories about them when we get together, even long after the funeral. That's why Southerners aren't afraid of ghosts. We know they're family.

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