I went to a funeral the other day of a good friend who was alarmingly close to my own age. It was a simple dignified service at a funeral home in his hometown. It was very much like every other funeral I’ve attended in the past 40 years, but it set me to thinking about how different today’s funerals are from those of my childhood. Yes, I know. Everything that happens is different from the days of my childhood and my childhood was a long, long time ago. But still. Funerals have changed.
Most visitations, for instance, occurred not at the funeral parlor — a rather out-of-date term, in and of itself — but at the home of the diseased. Even in the tiny little mill houses in the village in which I was raised, you could often see the hearse backed up to a front porch while workers rolled a casket into the house. Funeral home chairs would be brought in and all the neighbors would gather and bring food — enough food for a week.
I tried hard not to ever get caught in the vicinity of a home that was hosting a viewing and would go to any lengths to avoid a house where a body lay in state. It wasn’t that I was scared of dead people, but — well, yes it was. That was it entirely. I was scared of dead people. I have since learned that it’s the ones who are still alive that you have to watch out for.
People “sat up” with the dead back then, too. Friends and family members would take turns sitting beside the coffin all night long and the very thought of leaving a corpse unattended was considered disrespectful. I remember when my mama and them sat up with my grandmother when she died — I was probably 10 — and it was the longest night of my life.
Food, as I said, was a big part of funerals. As soon as word got out that somebody had died all the women of the community would start baking and frying and stewing and boiling, and pretty soon the next of kin of the dearly departed would have more chicken and casseroles and pound cake than they could say grace over.
The services, themselves, were generally held in churches — even with folks weren’t officially “affiliated,” and I remember my mama and her friends shaking their heads and tsk-tsk-ing about some poor soul whose family chose to have a simple graveside service instead of a full-blown funeral at the Methodist Church. It has been a long time since I have been to a church funeral.
There would usually be an open casket viewing at the church. On those rare occasions that I actually had to attend a funeral as a child I would avoid the line of mourners shuffling past the casket like the plague, but I remember the whispered comments as the grown-ups filed back to their seats in the pews. “Don’t he look natural?” was always the most common comment.
There was usually a lot of congregational singing at funerals, right out of the hymnal. Sometimes there would be a soloist, sometimes not. But the funerals of my youth were always long and loud. There would be lots of prayers and sermonizing and wailing. I think most Southern preachers were reluctant to let a crowd gather without at least making an effort to influence the eternity of those in attendance.
Once in a great while a friend or family member would offer a eulogy. I always found those extremely interesting and enjoyed hearing stories about my friends and neighbors, even after they were gone. A lot of times the eulogies made me wish I had paid more attention to the person while they were still living, but I remember my daddy, who was always the skeptic anyway, coming home from funerals of close friends and claiming that the person that was eulogized was a complete stranger to him.
We don’t do funerals like we once did. We’re sleeker, nowadays; more simple and more sophisticated. I think I liked the old way better. When I die I want folks to send flowers and wail and laugh and tell stories about me.
I wouldn’t even mind if some of them sat up with my body all night. I just hope they don’t do any of that stuff anytime soon.