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by Newt Harlan

Southerners, especially those of us who are products of the rural South, tend to think of funerals as an occasion for gathering and celebrating the life of the deceased rather than singing a solemn dirge of sorrow.

Friends and family come from miles around to gather at the church or funeral home to pay their last respects, listen to a sermon, bury the deceased and later gather at the home of the deceased or the hall of the church to visit with seldom seen friends and family and eat the food prepared by neighbors and the ladies of the church.

The funeral ritual has a definite order. First is the “visitation” or “viewing” which is the time preceding the funeral when family and friends gather to mourn the loss and view the deceased. This is also known in parts of the South as receiving friends. This is the time when the church ladies inspect the deceased and you hear such comments as “She looks just like herself, don't she?”, or “I declare, if I didn't know Tommy Joe had passed I'd be expecting him to sit up and ask for a drink, he looks so natural.” In recent years the visitation is often held on the evening prior to the services.

The funeral service normally follows a customary sequence: prelude music while the mourners find their seats, several hymns for the deceased, the eulogy which is often given by several friends and family members, another hymn or two, the sermon, the final viewing, the procession to the grave site, the graveside service and burial.

The family, close friends and the preacher then adjourn to the church fellowship hall or the kitchen or dining room of the deceased person's home where the church ladies and/or neighbors have a spread of food laid out -- that's part of the funeral.

The funeralizers will chow down on fried chicken, ham, barbecue, several kinds of beans, any number of different kinds of casseroles (sure to include macaroni and cheese and at least one made from green beans, Durkee onion rings and cream of mushroom soup), corn, peas, homemade rolls, two or three kinds of pie and banana puddin'. And, of course, there is always sweet iced tea to drink.

In some communities the menu changes to assorted finger sandwiches. Chicken salad, ham salad, egg salad and pimento cheese are the staples and each church lady has her specialty. I know over in East Gate that Sister Maude is known as the “pimenter cheese lady” because of her renowned sandwiches.

One last observation, funeralizin’ food may not always be homemade, but you can bet it will be properly laid out on glass serving dishes with china plates and cloth napkins. In other words, the fried chicken may have come from KFC, but it dang sure won't be served from the cardboard bucket.

I've given you all this background because a few weeks ago I witnessed one of the most unusual and bizarre funerals I've ever seen.

Driving past a local graveyard, my eyes were drawn to what appeared to be a funeral gathering at a gravesite near the road. I suppose what caught my eye was absence of the usual tent over the grave. The coffin was set over the open grave with flowers all around as is usual; however, the lid to the coffin was open and the deceased was on display as if for a viewing, except she was propped in a sitting position. The open casket in itself is not entirely unheard of, especially in cases where relatives have to travel a far distance and are unable to make it in time for the customary viewing, however having the corpse sitting up is sure as hell unusual.

Adding to the astonishing spectacle, there wasn’t a soul anywhere near the coffin, they were all gathered around what appeared to be a “tailgating party” with a couple of BBQ smokers, several iceboxes, and tables spread with food set up near the site. The people were all dressed casually, not a suit or church dress in the bunch. They were laughing, joking, and carrying on, and there was a group of musicians playing an accordion, picking and singing. Cars and pick-ups were parked helter-skelter, not in the usual orderly manner of a funeral procession, and there was no sign of a hearse that would’ve brought the body.

The scene was outlandish enough to pique my curiosity and I had to circle around and check it out further. I turned into a cemetery back entrance and made my way along the roads to a spot close enough to observe the happenings, yet far enough away as to be inconspicuous.

As I said, people were laughing and joking, the children were playing tag and several were climbing in the surrounding trees. The music the band was picking and singing wasn’t funeral dirges by any stretch of the imagination . . . honky- tonk boogies would be more like it.

The deceased appeared to be a woman of considerable age, dressed in a brightly flowered smock of some kind. The folks seemed to pay little attention to her except from time to time some of the participants made their way over to the coffin, gazed at the old lady for a moment or so, drank a toast, then rejoined the tailgating revelers.

This continued for about thirty minutes until on some unseen signal the band stopped playing and everyone, many carrying their libations, made their way to the area around the deceased. Someone spoke briefly, the musicians played “Amazing Grace,” and everyone filed by the casket. As they passed the old lady, the ones carrying drinks doused a bit of it on her. When the participants had all passed by the coffin, they laid the old lady down, closed the lid, and the casket was lowered into the grave.

The men in the party shoveled the dirt back into the grave and covered it with flowers, then everyone loaded up their BBQ pits, tables and kids and departed. The graveyard portion of their funeralizin’ was finished.

Since then I’ve often wondered where the party adjourned to finish the service. Do you reckon it was the home of the deceased? Or possibly a favorite neighborhood waterin’ hole? I kind of wish I’d been in actual attendance at the graveyard rather than observing from a distance and had been invited to witness the rest of the doings, but on the other hand, I think I prefer to let my imagination supply the details and ending to the most bizarre funeral I’ve ever witnessed.


Newt tells us about himself:

I was born, raised and educated in Texas. With the exception of a few brief sojourns and the 4 years during the Vietnam Era that I spent riding around on airplanes courtesy of the U.S. Air Force, I've spent the more than 65 years of my life within spittin’ distance of the place where I grew up. I managed to cram a four-year college degree into nine years and by virtue of that remarkable feat, I am a former student of six different schools, which sure helps the odds of rooting for a winner in sporting events. The academic standards committee had a moment of weakness and I was the fortunate recipient of a degree from Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas.

I'm Southern to the bone. The sound of “Dixie” being played gives me goose bumps and I stand and remove my hat. My yard dog, B.J., controls the squirrels, cats, meter readers and peddlers around my place. I’ve picked cotton by hand, plowed behind a mule, churned butter, shelled back-eyed peas, and for the first 12 years of my life, went without shoes from April until October. Several of my friends regularly hold conversations with mules, but as of yet I can’t get the danged mules to answer me. I think grits are as much a part of breakfast as bacon, eggs and cathead biscuits. I think ain’t is a perfectly good word and don’t plan to quit using it just because some damnyankee dictionary writer arbitrarily thinks it ain’t.

I've been married for 30-some odd years and have beaucoup kids and grandkids. I'm now retired after having spent the better part of the past 37 years traveling around Texas, Louisiana, and the Gulf Coast areas of Mississippi and Alabama, trying to sell steel products. My hobbies, in no particular order, include writing, grandkids, hunting, fishing and visiting the local watering hole to swap honest lies and research material for stories.

E-mail Newt at: Newt281@embarqmail.com

Want to read more of Newt’s stories at USADEEPSOUTH? Click these links:
Ol’ Red and the Armadillo
Telephones and memories
Tastes like chicken
Railroad Money
Basura Blanca News
Juicing Bovines
That's Entertainment ~ '50s Style!
Curing Colds
The Day the Hogs Ate My Little Brother
Humble, Texas
Southern Words
Railroad Fireman
Belly Waddin' Lunch


Read many more great stories listed on our USADS Articles pages.



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