Monday, April 28, 2008

Small Town Dying

By Michael Morris

Recently I traveled back home for the funeral of a close family friend. While the death was a shock, the way in which the community rallied around the family was not. As the south has changed and made way for residents beyond the Mason-Dixon Line, the one thing that has remained constant is how small towns unite around those who are grieving.

Within an hour of our friend’s passing, the citizens had sprung into action. Soon platters of fried chicken, bowls of casseroles and pans of pecan pie covered every square inch of the kitchen counter. Whatever the food item, every dish had one thing in common -- the adornment of masking tape with the owner’s name written in ink to ensure its proper return.

Watching the endless flow of townspeople enter the home to hug and cry with the family members, I suddenly felt great pride to be from this place. It’s in grief that the town shines the brightest. Silly disagreements or inconvenient slights are immediately tossed aside in favor of unconditional love and comfort.

During the visitation service the next day, those from various classes and races mingled in the funeral home to pay their respects. Of course every elected official in town made a stop too. If there is one thing that will cause a preacher or a local politician to lose his job, it’s the unpardonable sin of not appropriately acknowledging death.

Being away from my hometown for so long, I felt like an observer instead of a participant. I passed the time by looking through a scrapbook that the funeral home had placed on a coffee table in the lobby. The book contained thank you notes from family members who had hired the funeral home to assist in saying good-bye to loved ones. I was shocked to learn that some people I had known since childhood had passed away without my mama even calling to let me know. I was so wrapped up in reading the notes that I almost didn’t see one prominent elected official walk past.

She made her way to the elderly funeral home employee who was holding court in a winged back chair, thanking each visitor for stopping by. “Joe,” she said while using a remembrance card to fan herself. “Who else do ya’ll have down here that I need to know about?” Without getting up from the chair, the man pointed to a board that looked similar to ones I’ve seen at churches to record attendance. “What about Elmer Simpson’s sister? You seen her yet?” the man asked. The woman shook her head and said, “Oh gracious. Let me go.” And with that, she was off to comfort the next family and to certify her attendance by signing the guest register.

Friends of mine who live in different parts of the country are horrified when I tell them that in the world that I grew up in, making comments about the appearance of the dead is not only appropriate but also expected. My first real experience with this was twenty-five years ago when I accompanied my grandfather to a visitation service for a man whose family had once employed me.

My grandfather and I wove our way through the throng of mourners. When we reached the family, he leaned down so close to the open casket that I was scared he had lost his mind and was about to jump in. Then with all the enthusiasm he could muster he shouted, “Ohhh…don’t he look good. I tell you the truth, I hope they make me look this good when it comes my time.” Feeling my face grow red and wanting to melt into the floor, I nervously glanced at the man’s widow and daughter. I was certain that we would be thrown out and put on some sort of eternal list that would bar us from ever stepping foot inside the funeral home. But to my amazement, the widow and daughter offered broad smiles. The widow continuously thanked my grandfather and even gave an approving nod to the funeral director. It was then that I began to realize the complexities of ritual and the importance of having a good mortician. While I still can’t fully explain why we southerners continue to relish the pageantry of a funeral, I do understand that in an ever-changing world, the funeral speaks to our basic need to be part of a community and to cling to custom.

Driving home after the visitation service for my friend, I noticed several people I’d seen at the funeral home now walking along Main Street, eating ice cream and admiring storefront windows. Another group made their way into a cafĂ© for supper. Death might be just another facet of life but in small towns across the south, death is turned into a full-blown social event. A southern death has its own set of rules to follow with penalties for those who don’t comply. If you still have doubt, then I have a list of defrocked ministers and former politicians you might want to call.

Michael Morris is a fifth generation native of Perry, Florida, a small town near Tallahassee. He is the author of the award-winning novel, A Place Called Wiregrass, and Slow Way Home, named one of the best novels of the year by the Atlanta Journal Constiution and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.


River Jordan said...

Dear Michael, My brother from another mother, ain't it so, ain't it so?
My first funeral I remember attending was when I was just old enough to walk and my Grandaddy walked me up to the casket and then picked me up and leaned ME over the dead body so I could get a good look and say good-bye. Which explains, I think, a lot of the reasons I am the way I am. And if it weren't for a good funeral a whole lot of us wouldn't go home again like we should - more often.

Sorry about the passing. We missed you in Nashville. See you next time.


Beth Fehlbaum, Author said...

What about the tradition of taking a photo of the person in the casket? My grandmother had a picture of her own mother in her casket; when I was a child, that used to scare the bejeezus outta me.

Beth Fehlbaum, author
Courage in Patience, a story of hope for those who have endured abuse
Chapter One is online!