Death. To a small child growing up in a small tight-knit mountain community in Southwest Virginia death was mysterious, a little exciting, and a lot scary!
I don’t remember anyone ever really explaining death to me when I was little. I don’t know if it would have even been possible for my young mind to grasp. But to a little five or six-year-old girl I remember “the call” and overhearing my Nanny’s telephone conversation that a neighbor or relative had died. Then there were more telephone calls to be made to see if everyone else in the community was aware of the death. Sometimes there were tears but always conversations spoken almost in reverent whispers with phrases like, “Law’ have mercy, I wonder what she is going to do now that he is dead?” or “Wonder if his brother over in Smyth County is coming for the funeral? I heard he has been sick too you know.” or “Have you heard anything about the (funeral) arrangements?” or “I bet they will have a ton of food, what are you fixin’?”. And then the cooking began.
Most of my memories are of getting dressed up and, after daddy came in from milking, climbing in the big floaty boat Ford car and heading to Independence to Reins Sturdivant Funeral Home for a “viewing” the night before the deceased person’s funeral. Most of the time the funeral was then held at 11:00 the next morning or 2:00 the next afternoon at the church that the immediate family attended. These viewings were almost like reunions where people got to see others that had moved away and that they “hadn’t seen in ages”!
I expected to have to stand in line at the funeral home wearing my shiny little black patent leather shoes that hurt my feet. When we finally got inside the funeral home door mom “signed the book” but I wasn’t sure why.
Next, the creepy part to me was passing the huge bouquets of carnations and other flowers with names on each arrangement while everyone around me was whispering or quietly crying. To this day the smell of a carnation reminds me of the funeral home. The slow moving line then brought us to the open, softly lined casket where I could barely see over the edge even on tiptoes. (That is where I also learned that the handles on the side of the casket were NOT made for me to grab onto and try to pull myself up further to peer in.) So I could only see the wrinkled hands folded across a well-dressed chest and the profile of the pallid face inside.
My mom would whisper “Oh my he looks so natural. They (the funeral home) did a really good job on him considering how sick he was.” Someone behind us would agree and you had to stand and look at the casket for an acceptable amount of time. To me it felt like hours. By this time, I was always a little freaked out. Next came awkwardly shaking hands or getting hugs from the sad relatives that I had known all my short life but had never seen cry or even seen sad before!
I have two instances way back in my memories, I was very young, where the body of the deceased was brought back into the person’s home for something the grownups called a “wake”. The casket was usually placed against a wall in the living room and surrounded by sprays of flowers (again, mostly carnations). There were candles or lights placed over the casket with the other lights dimmed in the room. Excess furniture had been moved out to make space for straight backed chairs to be placed against the walls. The men would respectively come to visit in their suits and Stetson hats and the women brought in food wearing their best Sunday dresses.
While the women gathered in the kitchen quietly putting out food and keeping everyone fed, the older men would take seats around the living room and sit stoically in the dim light talking in hushed tones, smoking their pipes, and telling a story or two. If it was warm enough the porch was also full of people mingling around, talking and smoking. And many stayed all night.
My most vivid memory of a wake is going to a beautiful old two story farmhouse to pay our respects. It was dusk and I remember having to travel up a long rutted out dirt driveway with big trees on both sides and limbs hanging over the road that lightly brushed our car when we drove under them. As we topped the hill I could see the old house silhouetted against the sunset. The dim light, the old house and the somber mood in the car ride there had already set the stage for this little girl to be a little spooked.
We parked in the small pasture near the home, took the food out of the car and waded through the dewy grass up to the house. I followed my mom so closely that if she had suddenly stopped I would have knocked her down. We climbed the wooden steps up to the porch and then quietly stepped inside the dimly lit living room. Thank goodness I got to follow the women into the kitchen where there was sufficient light and smells of delicious home cooked food. But as we passed by the casket I did try to take a peek at the older gentleman lying inside and at all the men sitting in their chairs like protective sentinels watching over the body and making sure the grieving family was going to be alright.
After what seemed to me like days, my dad came and got us from the kitchen and we finally were ready to go home. That is when I learned that my granddaddy had taken a chair in the living room and planned to stay the night and watch over the body with the others. I didn’t understand it but that made me feel a little proud.
As I got older I learned that, what seemed to a little girl as spooky death rituals, were actually kind acts from neighbors and friends that showed tremendous respect for the dead and their grieving families.