Dying With Taste – Southern Funeral Traditions

Tomorrow, I’m posting a story – the first of a series of unconnected tales – about dying in the South.  I was inspired to write that fantasy after a really strange, really interesting Sunday School lesson.

(Edit: Here are the four stories – The EmbalmistsThe Funeral Ribbon QuiltThe WakeThe Preacher’s Wife -)

On August 13th, my church had a speaker from the North Carolina Museum of History come to talk about Southern funeral traditions.  The speaker focused on the tradition of the funeral ribbon quilt, which I’ll include in this little snippit of an article, but other Southern funerary traditions found their way into the talk.  Most of the information presented here came from that lesson.

If you have access, you can read the paper here:

Bell-Kite, Diana.  Memorials of Satin: Funeral Ribbon Quilts in Context.  Uncoverings.  Volume 37, pp. 41-74.  2016.

Embalming and Cremation – Sins That Weaved Their Way In

The first story, the one that comes out tomorrow, speaks about the practice of embalming.  Though invented in the 1700’s as a method to preserve organ specimens for scientific study, popularization of embalming as a means of corpse preservation occurred during the Civil War.  Union soldiers with rich enough families would pay a battlefield undertaker to embalm their dead relative so that the corpse could be transported back home instead of buried on site.

100Once the war was over, the Northerners kept the tradition of embalming and started commercializing death.  Instead of handling a funeral in their home, they would outsource the work to the local funeral directors.  Cremation became an acceptable means of disposing the body due to cost, location, and other restrictions more common in the urbanizing North.

Back in the south, those luxuries were unaffordable.  Association with the North, those evil ragamuffins, served to make them seem evil.  After getting out of church on Sunday, I called my mom and talked to her about what I’d learned.  She audibly shuddered and said, “Cremation’s awful.  Everyone says you go to hell if you get cremated.”  She paused a minute while she thought on it a little more.  “It’s something from up North.  They don’t care about goin’ to hell as much up there.”

“Full of sinners?” I asked.

“Yeah, I reckon.”

That being said, both practices are making their way into the unique and customized traditions of the south.  Some people are even requesting cremation so they can be interred in their favorite mayonnaise jars.

The Wake

The Southern Wake is something I’ve never experienced but have known about.  Though embalming is now a legal requirement in most states, even those down here, the wake was a tradition in which the body rested in the house for the night (two, tops).  The family and those close to the deceased would keep a vigil, staying up through the night with alternating celebration and mourning.  People bring food for the bereaved to enjoy and help ease the moment.

Mr. Bill, one of the most outgoing and personable human beings at the church I attend, had something to say after Sunday School was done.

“I ‘member when Mama and Daddy used to take me to the old-style funerals.  They had all kind of food and it was the greatest.  I loved it.”

The wake preceded a long funerary service at the church, which is usually where I started my experiences with Southern Funerals.  At the church you enjoy even more food, listen to multiple hours of sermon, then the deceased are buried.  From death to dirt, it takes about a day.

Because I grew up in a poor, rural area of the south, the old-style funeral is the only one I’ve experienced.  People would bring an absolute trove of goodies to assuage the bereaved family members and throw a bit of a party.  You could bet there’d be banana pudding and deviled eggs.  Regional trends would determine exactly what kind of food appeared, but there’d always be plenty of it.

Flowers Of a Particular Kind (And Their Ribbons)

sweet-thought-standing-sprayA tradition killed by the recession, Southern funeral bouquets were a major part of dying.  Florists were able to equate the purchase of flowers with a moral obligation, and Southerners bought this line without question.  The more flowers a deceased party had at their funeral, the more well-loved and popular they had obviously been.  To not give flowers would be considered a grave (pun, get it) insult.

The subject of the talk in Sunday School was an offshoot of this practice.  In order to cheapen bouquets and ensure adequate flower supply, florists would tie in long, satin-acetate bows.  Southern ladies would take the bows off the flowers and sew them into a quilt.  The tradition of the funeral ribbon quilt died when the material for these bows changed from the satin-acetate to the weather-resistant polypropylene (short part of the story).

The practice of giving copious flowers at a Southern funeral still remained in many areas, at least the one I grew up in, until the Great Recession.  I remember the piles and piles of flowers at the funerals I’ve been to.  Once the Recession hit, though, people stopped being able to afford such frippery.  In the 10 years since the market crashed, I think the last vestiges of the floral funeral may have finally ended.  A few people remain who will insist on dying the old way, but the more modest and practical funeral of the North seems to have taken over.

Lord have mercy on us all.


5 thoughts on “Dying With Taste – Southern Funeral Traditions

  1. Tom Darby says:

    I plan to be cremated. I’ve left instructiond to mix my ashed with the ashed of our deceased dogs, bake them into a brick and build a wall with them. My wife still thinks I’m joking. Wait till she see my will though…

  2. joanne the geek says:

    When both my grandmother, and my father died (not at the same time) we had wakes for them. When one of my friends committed suicide his family had a wake for him. So it does seem to happen here a bit, but i don’t know how prevalent it is here. I think Maori (the indigenous people here) hold wakes as part of their culture too.

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