By Tom Poland
“Lawdy, Miss Ruth, I don’t know when I enjoyed a funeral so much.” Whenever a funeral came up Mom repeated what this lady told her. I didn’t know the woman. She may have belonged to the Newberry Missionary Baptist Church or another church back home in Lincoln County, Georgia. I remember her quote word for word, and I suspect what she enjoyed was seeing old friends and hearing some fine music, not your usual Sunday come-to-meeting fare. And of course, fellowship and food afterwards.
I’ve never looked forward to a funeral but I heard more than one reverend say a funeral should be a joyous time. I get what he means, but funerals make me tense. I’ve been to funerals where hysterical sobbing unnerved me. I’ve been to funerals that made me uncomfortable, and I’ve been to funerals where I like what seems new to me, the sharing of memories of the dearly departed. I relax and laugh at the departed one’s antics. Those kinds of farewells I like. Puts a human face on the departed one.
I attended the funeral of a great aunt Monday in Augusta, and I found it to be a happier time than most funerals. It “set me to remembering” as old folks will say. For me, this funeral represented a long jornada del muerto, which loosely means journey of the dead man. The first deceased person I remember seeing was my great grandfather, Talmadge Blanchard, of Leah, Georgia. I viewed him in his casket in November 1962. I can still see him, exactly as he was, exactly where he was.
The funeral I attended Sunday was for his daughter, his youngest child. She was the last of eleven siblings to depart this life. I remember her, a beautiful lady, my grandmother’s sister. So, this recent funeral closes a circuit for me, for now at least.
In between my great grandfather and great aunt’s funeral, I’ve been to dozens of funerals, often serving as a pallbearer. “Well, you know John was one of the pallbearers for Aunt Sarah.” A simple sentence like that strikes with force for I find the term “pall” a bit weighty. A pall can be an air of gloom, a heaviness, and it can refer to a dark cloud of smoke or dust. It also can refer to a cloth spread over a coffin, hearse, or tomb.
Heaviness fits. The many times I’ve carried a person to their grave I was part of the grieving, and sometimes a coffin is heavy sure enough. I can tell you my mind is on one thing when I serve as a pallbearer. “I am helping to lower this person into the earth never to be seen again.”
Visitations I like better than funerals. You can come and go as you please. And the atmosphere is less formal, but I still believe in dark suits and ties and a bit of formality when it comes to the service.
Funerals down South. We know to expect flowers, prayers, music, and a mini-sermon about salvation. We know, too, that after all the funeralizing is done, we will share some good Southern cooking and get back to laughing, remembering, and criticizing. “Can you believe she dressed like that for her grandmother’s funeral?”
Life goes on.
Tom’s work appears in publications throughout the South. His books include South Carolina Country Roads, Classic Carolina Road Trips From Columbia, Georgialina, A Southland, As We Knew It, and Reflections of South Carolina, Vol. II. He writes about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and culture. He’s member of the SC Humanities Speaker’s Bureau. Governor Henry McMaster conferred the Order of the Palmetto upon Tom for his body of work on South Carolina. Tom grew up in Lincoln County, Georgia, and graduated from the University of Georgia. He lives in Irmo, South Carolina.