Friday, September 24, 2010

Folklife Friday: Settin' Up with the Dead

From earliest recorded history, every society has had their rituals for burying the dead. From anointing the body with oils and herbs to mummifying it, these rituals were meant to honor and sometimes preserve the departed, and to provide a venue where the living could remember and show respect to the departed.

Back in the day in West Tennessee, comfortable air-conditioned funeral parlors were for the genteel town folk. People in the country took care of their own, washing and preparing the body, then laying the deceased out for the wake. Somewhere in the fifties, laws were enacted that required embalming the dead. After that, the body would be taken to town for the embalming and dressing process, then returned home to lie in state in the same living room where they had played and rested and taken care of business.

Friends and family would arrive early with fried chicken and apple pies and bowls of vegetables. They would ask if there was anything they could do, but there usually wasn't. After an acceptable amount of time in front of the coffin, the women would try to find a seat, and the men and children would slip out the door.

The first men to gather usually found the makings of a bonfire, and the crowd gathered around that. First, they would speak respectfully of the dead. No matter what sort of past a man may have had with the deceased, he could always find a tidbit of something nice to say, like "He sure did keep that garden clean" or "He checked on his mama every day she lived". Then, the conversation would turn to amusing things, like that time he broke his arm jumping off the chicken house. After an hour or so, the deceased was forgotten as the men discussed politics, religion, and the price of corn. About this time, some good ole boy would pull a pint bottle from his hip pocket and pass it around, causing things to liven up considerably.

The children played until their bedtime. Tired, they drifted to the house to find their mama, who gathered them up and went home. The men, however, stayed all night. It was just not done--leaving the deceased or his family alone the night before he was put in the ground. They threw more wood on the fire and passed the night. With the new morning, women would return and cook breakfast for the family and those who had spent the night. After breakfast, the men would go to the cemetery with their picks and shovels to dig the grave.

Small communities had to work together to survive. They were soberly aware that the next wake might be at their house, and they trusted their neighbors to take care of them when it was their time. A real man did his part.

My daddy told us this story about a wake he had attended many, many years ago. A thirty-something wife had died suddenly, and the whole community was there for the wake. The grieved husband drifted out to the fire where the men were standing around. Although he wasn't a very popular person in the community, all the men were sympathetic, patting his back and listening to his laments.

"She was a fine woman, a wonderful woman. We never had a cross word."

Someone spoke up. "You mean to tell me you were married for several years and never had a fight?"

The widower rubbed his chin, remembering. "Well, once, we almost had a fight. I came home tired and she didn't have supper ready. I gave her a little push and told her this had better not happen again. She picked up a piece of stove wood and hit me across the head, knocking me out the back door. Yessir, that was the closest we ever came to having a fight."

Bless his heart.