Life is full of celebrations, even in death
Words by Nicole Letts
I’m standing under a sprawling oak tree struggling to find a shady reprieve from the lower Alabama heat.
My 94-year-old PopPop is lightly perched on a neighboring headstone, giving his worn knees their own break. There is sweat on his brow, which he wipes away with his handy red bandana, the one that is always tucked into his left sports coat pocket. I can tell his body is tired from the morning’s events, but he doesn’t complain. Instead, he offers me a peppermint both to calm my nerves and to make the universal sympathy gesture: gifting something to eat. Unlike me, he doesn’t mind being in Pine Crest Cemetery in Mobile, Alabama.
We are there on a sweltering May afternoon. The kind where summer’s humidity has already sprouted in the South, while elsewhere throughout the country, winter’s last snow lingers. I have stood in this cemetery many times before. Sometimes to visit ancestors. Sometimes to say good-bye to loved ones. We’re attending the funeral of a family friend, a sister-like companion for me, and my grandfather’s godchild. She has succumbed to a decade-long bout with encephalitis, and her friends and family have joined together at her family plot to bury her next to her mother, my grandmother’s best friend. As the minister speaks, my eyes drift to my left to the mausoleum, a brilliant marble structure where my Nana rests. I smile through my tears. How special to be as close to your friends in death as you were in life.
As if on cue, the minister wraps his message, and one by one, friends share stories of the woman we once knew. There are stories of her spectacular soccer skills. There are tales of her travels abroad. There are stifled sniffles, but mostly, there is laughter. Abundant laughter. It’s comforting. My mood shifts. This is the funeral tradition I know. It’s where tears turn to smiles, and memories are served alongside sweet tea and snacks.
Southern funerals are truly a celebration. They're often an all-day—or several-day—affair and are filled with everything from traditional hymns to thumping jazz. New Orleans, one of the region’s most illustrious cities, is well known for its second line parades. Originally brought to life by descendants of enslaved peoples, the second line procession swings to the rhythm of horns and drums from the church to the cemetery, pumping parasols and waving handkerchiefs along the way. After all, as 2 Corinthians so astutely says, to be absent on earth is to be present with the Lord, and that's worthy of a celebration. And in the South, we throw a damn good party.
“We have had funeral processions led by muscle cars, played a person’s favorite swing dance music, and had baskets full of peppermints to take home because he was ‘The Candyman’ who always had a piece of candy for the kids at church,” says Elizabeth Kilgore, a second-generation funeral director in Tullahoma, Tennessee. “We even buried one lady with a Sonic cheeseburger because her family said she couldn’t go a day without one.”
It’s those touches, along with our ceremonial traditions, that keep our spirits lifted in times of grief despite the grave occasion. Southern custom tells us that a person’s passing is only the beginning of the events to follow, starting with the visitation. “The visitation itself is an invaluable tradition that I encourage families to celebrate because it ends up being just that. A celebration!” says Kilgore. “The visitation is where healing truly begins. You get to see people you may not have seen in years, hear stories you have never heard, and very often if I do my job well, the deceased looks so much more like themself than they did in a hospital or facility surrounded by beeping machines, tubes, and alarms.” There’s often laughter as well as physical and emotional support. Of course, as any good Southern festivity requires, there’s always food too.
As Perre Coleman Magness says in the introduction to her book, “The Southern Sympathy Cookbook,” “Nothing motivates one to get in the kitchen more than a funeral. . . . Funerals in the South are synonymous with food.” Condolence cooking is ingrained in us from the get-go. We are taught that bringing someone in need a casserole or a loaf of bread is not only the helpful thing to do but the right thing to do. “It shows that you're thinking about them. It shows love. It's thoughtful. You didn't buy a Hallmark card or call FTD. You actually did something with your hands,” says Magness. “It’s that sense of community that goes back to our agrarian selves when everyone was very connected.”
Our sense of community forms deep roots. Small towns dot our maps, and while stoplights might be lacking in the more rural areas, places of worship are plentiful. “For many years, most funerals took place at a church or some kind of religious house such as a temple or a synagogue,” explains Magness. Food became a part of that community, and as a result, a part of how people expressed themselves. Dishes such as macaroni and cheese, funeral potatoes (“party potatoes” in Magness’ book, page 84), gelatin salads, and caramel cakes, appeared at church fish fries and family funerals alike. The grieving family is blessed with a full fridge and a few weeks off from cooking. It’s the least we can do.
Kilgore agrees. “We still have police-led processions to the cemetery. People still pull over, get out of their cars, and take off their hats as the hearse goes by. Almost every burial is followed by a meal at the family’s church.” It’s our unspoken ceremony as we pay our respects. “Death is universal. It is one of the few things that we will all have to encounter at some point,” says Kilgore. While we might have to go through it more than once, we never have to go through it alone. Even in those darkest moments, there’s always laughter, likely a fresh-baked pie, and when all else fails, a peppermint.