My grandfather died last week after a battle with dementia and overall failure of body. His spirit was fine, his heart was fine but I’m convinced that when he knew where he was, he wasn’t fine with living in an assisted living facility, depending on others for the things he used to do for himself or others.
He fought, but I think he finally gave himself permission to go gracefully.
The subsequent viewing and funeral reinforced the fact that he went gracefully and loved, surrounded by the children that he loved and that loved him. He was 87 years old.
I don’t like funerals. I don’t look at open caskets. I’m not one for platitudes or pats on the shoulder or being told that God just needed another angel to heaven. It’s a nice thought, but I’m not quite sure that God was putting together a foursome and thought of Papa. Who knows—maybe that’s exactly what happened.
But I do love the civilities of being Southern and the rituals of a Southern funeral. This is not to say that a Northern funeral is not as nice. I’m sure it is. But I remember attending the funeral in high school when my Northern grandmother died. It wasn’t the same.
Anatomy of a Southern Funeral
Food personifies a Southern funeral. There are inevitably two different kinds of meat, at least two types of salads, plenty of side dishes and at least three different desserts. Threatening to spill over the edges of whatever surface you’re attempting to corral it on, mourning food just begs to be nibbled, sampled and snacked upon.
Even if you try to plan a reasonable amount, there are always other things that seem to just appear.
Case in point: my mother agreed to bring barbecue for lunch prior the viewing. We brought enough for 25 people, which was how many people we expected for lunch.
My aunt brought a ham.
Because eight pounds of barbecue wasn’t enough—we might need a ham. We have growing boys (20 and 23 years old) and grown boys (I’m not revealing the ages of my uncles, but they’re well established). We might need a ham.
And a chocolate cake and a pound cake and some sort of bunt cake that I didn’t get a chance to cut into.
Not to mention salads, chips, pickles, beer, more beer and other assorted accouterments.
Because when you’re grieving, you need to feed the grief. Grief likes food that can be reheated, spread around and savored later.
Beer just requires ice. Or a freezer, if you’re in a hurry.
When my grandmother died, someone brought pimento and cheese, a staple southern spread that can be used on crackers or on a sandwich. For me, it’s a beach food—we always had it at the beach because it was easy to make a lot and people could eat at will with little preparation.
The pimento and cheese brought to my grandparents’ house after Ninny died was homemade and not like my mother usually made, but for some reason, I thought it was the best thing in the world. It was about the only I wanted to eat at the time and now, when I think of that day, I think of that pimento and cheese.
Now, when I think about Papa’s funeral, the memory is flavored with barbecue and beer.
Not that we’re a drinkin’ crowd, but at a funeral, there’s a necessity for libations.
If we were more Irish or Scottish, we’d be drinking hard liquor and singing “Danny Boy.” But, though our roots are far removed, we catch ourselves with the parsimoniousness of the Scots and eschew the good stuff for light beer. The cheaper the better as the sheer volume loosens the tongue as well as, if not better, than liquor for the quality of story-telling it affords.
These libations are best consumed far away from the public eye, gathered together on a screened porch with chairs pulled from the kitchen to afford enough seats. The libations are shared with everyone who is of drinking age, but the adults tell the stories with the distinctive tone and patter that denote a particularly good reminiscence.
During the visitation, which was supposed to last two hours, I heard approximately three hours worth of stories, about my grandfather’s coaching years, his superintendent years, his golfing and fishing and hunting years. I met former football players and childhood friends, people that I had heard about for years but hadn’t met. Some memories were short, and some were longer; there were stories not only about my grandfather, but also about my grandmother, more often than not causing my already filling eyes to threaten to spill. My grandmother died in 1999, but she is still remembered by the community and my grandfather’s friends like it was yesterday. When folks said, “I loved your grandmother, too,” I know that they actually knew her. And meant it.
My grandfather’s service was wonderful, exactly as I’d hoped it would be. There were bible verses read, hymns sung and a few special songs played: the Bainbridge High School Alma Mater, the Troy State Fight Song and a trumpet rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” which brought me and the rest of the church to sobbing tears, much to my surprise. And there were stories, some that I had heard and many that I hadn’t, but to look around the sanctuary, you’d think we’d all been replaced by bobble-head dolls, the amount that we nodded and smiled.
But it’s not just the stories at the events. It’s the stories before and after the visitation and the funeral, when we’re all gathered together, talking and laughing and eating barbeque. They’re told in the falling dark on the screened porch, the bar stools and dining room chairs pulled into the circle so that everyone can soak in the slightly faded memories that are passed from generation to generation through laughter that makes my stomach ache and tears run down my cheeks. They’re told more somberly in the church Fellowship Hall over fried chicken and ham, butter beans and green beans and wild rice casserole and lemon pie, red velvet cake and brownies.
The stories continue in the car as we drive to our respective homes and again when we play the photo slide show.
When it’s all said and done, it’s the stories that remain—the true and the slightly embellished, the unbelievable and the shouldn’t-be-repeated—that make a life unforgettable. My grandfather had an unbelievable, unrepeatable, unforgettable life; I’m trying to follow in his footsteps and live an unbelievable, can’t be repeated, unforgettable life as well.
For it’s only when you pass into legend and touch more lives than you can possibly count or fathom that you truly live.