Southern way of death

Ronda Rich's picture

Months before Mama died, she worried incessantly about the cost of obituaries in newspapers. Some charge by the word, you know.

Staunchly Scotch-Irish that she was – and a child of the Depression – every penny counted for this woman of the Southern Appalachians. When I cleaned out her old freezer, I found four dozen large butter tubs of homemade vegetable soup, all dated with ink on a strip of masking tape, many going back as far as 15 or 20 years. She was cautious about the economy before it was fashionable.

“Mama, you don’t need two freezers filled to the top with food,” I intoned from time to time, not that I figured it would do a bit of good. Her freezers were referred to as the “old freezer” which was 50 years old and the “new freezer” which was a youngster at only 40 years old.

“Yes, I do,” she replied firmly, setting her chin in that old familiar way of her stubborn kinfolks. “What if times get hard? What would I eat?”

To Mama, every penny and every morsel counted. So, when it started costing to publish death notices, Mama was deeply aggrieved. There is every reason to believe it hastened her death. She was beside herself with worry over it.

“When I die, don’t y’all put no big long obituary about me in the paper,” she lectured to me daily. I would nod absent-mindedly, thinking that it wouldn’t matter because she would be gone and we could do what we wanted and, for once, not answer to the strong-willed, outspoken matriarch of the family.

“I mean it,” she would continue to rail, not oblivious to my indifference but rather offended by it. “If you run a long obituary about me, I’m not paying for it! When I die, you just put this in the paper,” She punched her slightly crooked finger into the air, “I. Died.”

When death silenced her voice, we did just as we pleased and saw fit. We ran a long obituary, along with a photo that Mama had had made several months earlier, saying, “Don’t I look pretty? When I die, y’all use this picture at the funeral home.”

There is a uniqueness about the people of the South in that the inevitability of eventual death is viewed as just another of life’s major events and is discussed with the same frequentness and ease as marriage, child birth, divorce or education.

Folks often spend much longer planning their funerals than the time that any 10 weddings ever received. We know the songs we want sung, the prayers we want prayed, the preachers we want, which flowers should be included or excluded and, most important, the plot of land in which we’ll be laid to rest. The dirt that covers us is mighty important to all devout Southerners.

I often laugh about the elderly aunt of a friend who has spent the last 20 years meticulously planning her funeral. The list of preachers is constantly revised, due to what she views as questionable sermons or dubious behavior. Most amusing, though, is that she shops constantly for the dress she wants to wear for her big exit.

She’ll pull a dress off the rack in a store, hold it up to her, look in the mirror and ask, “How would I look laid out in this?”

Precisely, she has instructed that she is to wear one dress for the viewing and then she is to be changed into a red, cheerful one for her burial. Though she has been told that no one changes dresses on a corpse, she is indignant.

“They will for me,” She proclaims adamantly. “Because anyone who knows me knows that I’d never wear the same dress two days in a row!”

Awwww. That’s my people.

[Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of “What Southern Women Know About Faith.” Visit www.rondarich.com to sign up for her weekly newsletter.]