I recognize readers of this blog expect cutting edge healthcare discoveries, but sometimes I just need to indulge my philosophical side. From a doctor’s perspective death may be viewed as the ultimate defeat. Despite this dark side, it remains a teacher of truths not easily taught. Steve Jobs learned this in time to share it with us: “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.”
My wife’s father, Randy, just passed. Passed is what Southerners call dying so they can tell a friend or a loved one the person has died without saying he died. Of course they all know it means he died, but the gentleness of this process is all part of the complex Southern traditions revolving honoring the deceased while caring for the living.
In some ways, its hard to tell a Southern funeral from a big wedding reception. There’s crying and laughing and storytelling and hugging and all kinds of relatives you don’t usually see. At both events, people talk about the people getting buried or married when they were children ,while sneaking in a previously guarded secret or two.
No decent, self-respecting Southerner would ever consider me a real Southerner despite my having lived close to 40 years in the South. To them I’m just a Yankee transplant, and this weekend’s funeral would prove them right. This was my first full-on Southern funeral. A circumstance that actually made a lot of folks laugh sympathetically while checking on me to see how I was holding up. You see, I’m from South Bend, Indiana, but my people (as they say in the South), are all from Iowa. That makes me a Midwesterner everywhere in the US, except in the real South, where it just makes me a Yankee. But that’s okay because my Southern relations are at least puttin’ up with me. By the way, I only pretend to talk Southern, whereas my wife and her folks truly speak Southern; so much so that there were times I needed a Rosetta Stone translator.
My father in-law lived in Boiling Springs, North Carolina, but he was born up the mountain in Asheville. Nearly all of his life was spent within a few miles of those cities. Boiling Springs is an honest-to-goodness one-stoplight town with less than 5000 official residents.
Despite its obvious smallness, Boiling Springs has its sophisticated side. It’s also the home to Gardner-Webb University which boasts an enrollment about equal to the rest of the town. All this means just about everyone in town had a story to tell about Randy and sharing those with the family would be an integral part of the process.
The small-town Southern passing experience, as I am learning it, is a multi-day event. It started tragically when my mother in-law, Renna woke to find that her husband of 43 years had passed while she was sleeping. The frantic 911 call was quickly followed by calls to her kin and friends. Even though Randy was far from healthy, no one expected him to be going anytime soon. Earlier that week he had been to a Gardner-Webb basketball game and drove himself to the store several times to buy milk – more on that later.
The paramedic, police, medical examiner, coroner process took several hours and added to the pain of his loss, but it was required given the unexpected nature of his passing. During that time the call went out to more friends and relatives, and obviously to my wife. We live 3 hours away outside of Atlanta, but we managed to arrive on the scene by early afternoon. By then, Renna had the comfort of what seemed like an endless stream of friends and relatives. Food – not that she was in any mood to eat – had already started to pile up in the kitchen.
And food, as anyone familiar with the Southern passing-funeral process knows, is an important part of the tradition. It’s acceptable to start with store-bought food on day one – particularly if it is an unexpected passing, but after that most everything switches to homemade and handmade traditional specialties. In this part of the real South that means casseroles - actually 27 different casseroles by the end of the process 3 days later. The local Baptist church provided fresh breakfast every day. It featured Southern delicacies like made from scratch biscuits with pork, country bacon (not like the kind you city folks are used to), and fried chicken (of course), with blueberry muffins, cornbread, and buckets of sweet tea, Coke and Sun Drop.
The menu for this three day gathering was amazing even by Presidential inaugural standards (Randy was buried on the 21st of January as the President took his oath of office for his second term). I’ve come to learn the general rule for Southern vegetables is that they are best fried, or boiled until limp, or even better put in a casserole. One night I asked my wife what I was eating. Unable to identify it from its appearance she bravely took a bite and pronounced – “ Oh that’s veg-all casserole” as though I would know what that meant. So I replied –“Okay – what’s in it?” Naturally, she replied “veg-all and mayonnaise”. Of course I should have guessed that.
If all this is getting you hungry, chances are you were born in the South. By contrast, if you’re going yuck, most likely you’re from California.
The following day was interspersed around the endless buffet served for the benefit of the grieving and those gathered to pay their respects, with trips to the funeral home and cemetery . That’s when I learned real Southerners bury their relatives and don’t believe in cremation. Ashes to ashes is clearly in the Bible, but people from the real Bible times were all buried – sure enough. That meant we needed to select the burial vault and casket for Randy’s resting place – Southern for grave. And if the folks at the funeral home and cemetery weren’t already friends or relatives (remember it’s a small town) they practically would be kin before its all over. Love, warmth, kindness, empathy and care flowed from the staff at the Cecil M. Burton funeral home and Cleveland County Memorial Park.
Since no advanced preparations were made, we in the family sorted out all the details and along with the relatives that came down from the mountain, picked out the casket much like you pick out a new car. Color, added features like a tray to put cards and letters in, inside and outside decorations were all discussed. As strange as that may seem, it was an time of support, sharing, and an important process for honoring Randy’s life and respecting his family. It wasn’t until later that I really got the significance of a fancy casket and what it means to real Southerners, but I’ll get there. For now, my practical, scientific and medical side told me it’s just a box we bury in the ground, but from the Southern perspective it’s much more than that. I was clever enough to read the social cues and see just how serious everyone was about doing Randy right. In the end he got a very attractive burgundy and gold colored casket with lots of trimmings. Earlier that day we bought him a new suit, shirt and tie just for his special occasion. Of course we had to make sure the tie and shirt colors went with the casket. Fortunately – they did.
Naturally, it was back to the house for more food. During this time, Renna wasn’t able to stay at her home, so her friend and fellow school teacher, Miss Jane, took us all in. Now Jane just tells it plain and straight up, and generally with a substantial dose of humor and sarcasm added in for fun. Once we told Jane about the casket she seemed very relieved. Seems her grandmother was a simple and unpretentious woman who just wanted to be buried in her pajamas with a simple casket. Jane said, “It looked just like a cardboard box, Whatever you do don’t bury me in a BOX!”
I thought for a moment about debating the point with her, but fortunately held back to absorb more of this unique and important journey.
The next part of Southern funeral is fashion – of course. Now this get’s a bit tricky because the girls all want to look good without being flashy – or what might be considered trashy by church folks. Given the trends in current fashion, that can be a little challenging. This necessitated a trip back to the home so Renna could select a suitcase full of clothes so that on the actual day she would have the right combination. Natural the weather forecast had to be considered as well – high in the mid 50s, but breezy and clear. Eventually we arrived at the appropriate combination of style and warmth for the next day’s events for both Renna and my wife.
Between the selection of a casket and the burial was an extra day where the family had a private viewing of Randy at the funeral home. This was a time of open casket, tears and hugs. It was a private and important part of the passing process.
As most of your know, my stepson has autism. He has made great progress of late and the events of this passing were evidence of his maturity and growth. Oddly, for the past month he had been obsessed with riding in a limo – based on the recent Alvin and the Chipmunk movie. When we told him he would ride in a limo the next day he immediately put on his best behavior.
The day of the funeral the limo arrived and he was all smiles. He still hadn’t grasped the process. By Southern custom, the family arrives early and has another private time with their loved one. This was his first time to see his grandfather. It was a remarkable process. He studied his grandfather, spoke to him, asked him if he was alright, tried to comfort him and then said, “I’m going to tell you a story. Everyone was pretending to be asleep and then they died and went to heaven and then they said AHHHH! and it was all better.” WOW. His story went on for quite sometime and it was amazing.
After this a line formed with people from the community coming to pay their respects to the family. I met step-grand aunts and cousins I didn’t even know I had. As you may suspect – they came down the mountain and they were good people. Following Baptist customs the family and the pastor retired to a room in the back, prayed and then came back into the main sanctuary of the church. By the time we were back from prayer the church was full. There the beautiful burgundy and gold casket, new suit, shirt and tie, all became an important part of the honor paid to Randy.
After a few hymns and the reading of the 23rd Psalm (if you can’t say it from memory you need to learn it better), we went to the grave site. Pretty much everyone came to the cemetery. After prayers and the commitment of his spirit to God, everyone talked to the family and friends for about an hour. After this everyone went to Jane’s for more casseroles, fried chicken, okra, cornbread and an endless array of desserts.
This process builds strength in communities through connectedness and family ties. It is lacking in many of us – certainly it was in me. My family moved a lot. I went to 5 different elementary schools and have lived in Indiana, Ohio, Florida, Texas, Illinois, Arizona, California, North Carolina and Georgia, and in the Air Force I was stationed in Egypt and Germany. My wife asked me where I called home? Hmmm. I’m not sure. Georgia is starting to feel like home, but for sure I am glad I have a Southern wife and in-laws who come down from the mountain when it counts.
“You never know how much you really believe anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you.”
― C.S. Lewis
I know this – children with autism have far more insight with their spirits than we understand and death teaches us all what is valuable in life.
In memory of Randy Shook – his family and friends will miss him.