On Death and Potato Salad
Yesterday we buried Merriem’s last living grandparent. Grandmother Murphy was a true southern matriarch. Poised, polished, and prepared for every scenario, even making sure that each detail of her funeral was covered. It has been a bittersweet few days of memories, tears, and final goodbyes.
It’s also been a few days of once again comparing funeral traditions. You see, Merriem and I grew up in small southern towns just thirty minutes apart. Me in southern middle Tennessee, she in north central Alabama. Thirty minutes separated, but worlds apart when it comes to how funerals are done.
I remember the very first funeral we attended as a couple, twenty-plus years ago. The dad of a friend had passed away, and Merriem came with me to the service at the funeral home and the graveside service. After the pastor’s final remarks, Merriem looked at me and whispered, “Are we going?” To which I replied, “Of course not. It’s not over.”
Because it wasn’t over. The graveyard tractor roared to life, pulling carts full of dirt, which was then dumped over the lowered casket while we watched.
Merriem was horrified. She’d never seen a John Deere participate in a funeral service before. I’d never seen it done any differently.
In Alabama, the family has the graveside service, then returns home while the casket is lowered and buried. The family returns later that evening to see the finished result.
In Alabama, people bring food to the home of the deceased. Lots and lots and lots of food. People that you’ve never met before will show up with potato salad.
In Tennessee, it’s the same thing. Except instead of bringing food to someone’s house, food comes to the funeral home. There’s a back room where the family has a veritable buffet set up, because nothing says “I’m taking a break from processing my grief” like a bucket of cold chicken from KFC.
In Alabama, the emerging tradition is that visitation happens at the home of the deceased. You don’t show up at the funeral home until the day of the service, and then just a few hours before things get started. In Tennessee, visitation is as big of an event as the funeral. One night – sometimes two! – of greeting the family. And then there are chairs set up where you can greet, then sit, and then stare at the casket. I don’t know what we’re staring at. But that’s what we do. Funeral visitations are the place to see and be seen. It’s the depressing version of Wal Mart.
In Alabama, the family is sequestered in their own little sitting area during the service itself. In Tennessee, the family gets a reserved pew in the middle of the action.
Those are just a few of the differences Merriem and I have identified over the years. What about you? What are some of the funeral traditions unique to your hometown? Comment below.