So I went home for my grandmother's funeral (she was very old and very sick, so it was expected) this weekend, and I realized something: my family is really, profoundly Southern. Forgive the tl;dr that follows; I somehow came out of this weekend with MANY thinky thoughts about cultures and rituals and arhives, and I've just got to get them out somewhere, so...yeah.
Funerals are already weird cultural rituals to begin with; they're also very culturally specific. Every culture has its own shade of weird. I knew this, of course, but I didn't really think about it until this weekend - the fact that the funerals I grew up with might not be the funerals everyone else grew up with. It's a bit like having to go overseas in order to realize how American (or other nationality) you are. I am not sure, however, which parts of *my* kind of funerals are attributable to Southern-ness, which to Texan-ness, and which to religion. What you have to know: my family is a particular shade of southern Christian known as Church of Christ. (Or if you're particular, churches of Christ. Also known as CoC). Funerals in our tradition basically have four parts: visitation, funeral at the church, graveside service, and food. Unrelenting, never-ending food.
Probably the best thing about the CoC is that they take the concept of "church family" Very Seriously. You join a church, they are your family. So when my grandmother died, someone from the church was sitting next to my mother within the hour. All of the family had to drive or fly in, so it was a member of the church who helped her go through Grandma's stuff at the nursing home. There was a cake, a pie, gravy and noodles, a casserole, and barbecue at my house by the end of the day, brought by all of the sympathizing church family members. If family means never having to be alone, then church family additionally means never having to cook for yourself. When I got home Sunday, there was food everywhere. Food on the counters and the table and in the refrigerator. Pitchers of sweet tea on the stove.
There are a lot of reasons that I am not a member of the church in more--reasons like deeply held homophobia and sexism--but goddamn, they know how to take care of their family. They've got a crisis response structure to rival the freaking Red Cross. They do something similar for baby and wedding showers. The baby showers in particular can get really intense. At a big church, you might end up with 2-3,000 dollars worth of merchandise. The idea is that a new baby is an addition not just to your immediate family but to the church family, and the church family takes care of its own. I may not be a member of the church anymore, but I am culturally very CoC. If someone's crying in my house, my first instinct is to feed them. Of course that's not only a CoC or even Southern thing, but I think it's at least strengthend by those influences.
VISITATION. Visitation is what I imagine is a shortened version of a wake held the night before the funeral. Two hours at the funeral home during which people stroll past an open coffin and hug you. A lot. I saw every church person I ever knew growing up. I also saw quite a bit of my extended family. After two hours, my face hurt from smiling and saying, oh yes, I'm in grad school now, and no, I'm not married, and yes, she will be much missed. I'm not sure of the history of this thing. What it felt like was a big public relations event: a receiving line of family, waiting to be comforted by well-wishers. My sister and I stood next to each other, humming Beyonce's immortal "Bootylicious" under our breath. It was, apparently, the last thing playing on the radio when she had gotten out of the car, and my sister smartly decided that it was pretty difficult to cry while singing "Bootylicious." After mentioning this brilliant insight to a couple of horrified people, we decided that "Elmo's Song" would be an appropriate substitute for mixed company.
FOOD. The funerals I've been to have all been preceded by a dinner for the family hosted by the church. (Oh that's another southern thing: calling lunch "dinner". The meal at night is "supper.") It's basically a potluck: church members (almost entirely women) bring dishes and arrange them on a table. The family serves themselves and eats. When they've had their fill, the church members eat. I cannot describe to you this food. It's been a long time since I've eaten at a church potluck, and sweet Jesus. There was fried chicken, fried catfish, chicken enchiladas, coleslaw, beans of all kinds, mashed potatoes, numerous other sides, and four kinds of rolls. There were cakes, pies, brownies, cookies, and two kinds of banana pudding. This last is most important, because as my cousin told me, "Banana pudding is the Cadillac of southern desserts." This is God's Own Truth, my friends. Go forth and eat banana pudding.
I was teaching Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own a couple of weeks ago, a book in which there lies probably the most mouth-watering description of a meal in all of English literature. Woolf knew how important food was. Food means money; it means resources; it means someone caring about you eating well; it means leisure time if someone else is cooking it; it means the kind of luxury that inspires great art. So I'm really only half joking when I say that food is maybe the most important part of our funerals.
FUNERAL. I never thought of it this weekend, but I've never heard a family member of the deceased speak at a funeral. In movies and TV, you always see family members speaking about their loved ones, giving eulogies, reading poems, and so forth. And I'm sure that, if someone in the family wanted to speak at a CoC funeral, no one would think twice about it, but for whatever reason, we don't generally do that. The obituary, eulogy, and funeral sermon are given by church leaders, although a lot of times the eulogy is combined with either the obit or the sermon. At my grandmother's funeral, the obituary was given by the church's current preacher, the eulogy given by a church elder, and the sermon by a retired preacher who had been my grandma's preacher for 30 years. All of these men would be considered close family friends, though; ideally that's what church leaders are: friends and brothers (yes, all church leaders are male - don't get me started.)
There's also lots of singing. CoC is often known for the fact that they are strictly a cappella: no instruments, no instrumental music. Some churches have groups of volunteers who form an amateur choir expressly for funerals. Funerals are also one of the only times when you will hear solos sung in a church. Our funeral had two solos and two congregational songs sung by everyone. A cappella music was playing over the sound system as we walked in.
PROCESSION. I'm not sure how widely this is practiced, but when a funeral procession drives through, it is customary where I'm from to stop your car and wait for them to pass, both out of respect and to get out of their way. When my mother was little, you even got out of the car. I still do it myself, just because it was what I was taught to do. This tradition is getting old, though, so when our procession drove toward the cemetery, perhaps only a third of people stopped. Or rather, the people who had a choice. When driving through towns, we had a police escort that blocked the intersections so that we all go through at once. I had to stop myself from thinking "How rude!" when drivers would speed pass us without slowing or stopping. It's just a tradition, and definitely not one everyone in rural Texas knows about or follows. It's odd, though, how traditions kind of invade your mindset and normalize ideas that actually really culturally specific.
GRAVESIDE. The graveside portion is usually very short: a couple of prayers and it's done. Fewer people tend to show up to the graveside service because the main funeral is already done: at my Grandma's, it was just family and the church leaders who had spoken at the funeral.
FOOD. When we got home, all of the leftover food from the dinner had been boxed up in to-go boxes and left on our kitchen table. We re-arranged the fridge and put what we could in there, some of it went in a cooler, and the rest was left out for supper.
I ate chocolate pie because I didn't feel like going through all of the side dishes or heating things up.
I'm not entirely sure why I felt the driving need to write this all down. I think my inner academic deals with stress by doing auto-ethnography.