One of the books I read while on Study Leave was Thomas Long and Thomas Lynch’s The Good Funeral: Death, Grief, and the Community of Care. I read this at my grandma’s house and on Sunday, while there, I did what I have always done when here in Moore County, attend church at Culdee. Afterwards, my daughter and I spent some time walking around the cemetery. The tombstones, dating back into the 19th Century, bring back many memories. I’ve been in the cemetery for the funerals of a grandfather, two sets of great-grandparents, and a few great aunts and uncles. There are those whom I never knew who are buried there, such as my great-great grandparents and an aunt that died from leukemia when she was three. As a young teenager, I helped my grandmother clean up the cemetery, but my first memory of the cemetery was from when I was eight years old. We left Moore County when I was six and was living in Virginia, but when the call of death came, we headed home… When I die, having lived all over this nation, I have always imagined my cremains coming home to rest on this sandy ridge between the Little River and Nick’s Creek, while awaiting the resurrection.
My brother, sister and I stood by the casket that held my great-grandma, Callie McKenzie. Behind us stood our mom, hovering over like an angel as she wrapped the three of us in her arms. We gazed at the body which everyone said looked so much like her, but it didn’t. Bodies never look life-like and great-grandma’s was no different. Mom pointed to her hands. They were wrinkled and covered with brown liver spots. She reminded us of all the strawberries she’d picked, the tomatoes she’d raised, the apples she’d peeled and the corn she’d shucked. When I was younger, we lived next door and sometimes on Sunday afternoon, after church, we’d all gather with our extended family in her backyard, under the pecan trees. The boundaries of her lawn were marked by the back porch, a dirt road over beyond the well, a corncrib in the back, and a smokehouse and woodpile on the far side, just in front of the canebrake. Tables were set out and we’d have lunch, followed by a slice of pie that she’d baked Saturday evening in her wood burning range. She had a gas range, but preferred the wood burning one. “We’ll never taste another of those pies,” Mom sadly reminded us.
After a few minutes, Mom shuffled us out on the porch of the funeral home in Carthage, into the warm humid air of a July evening, telling us to behave as she went back in with the adults. Much later, well after dark, we drove to my Dad’s parent’s home, where we stayed the night. It was unnervingly quiet without grandma and granddaddy and Uncle Larry. There were no ice cream and Pepsi floats before bed, as was my granddaddy’s habit, for they were all in Florida enjoying a vacation and unaware of our presence or even of my grandma’s terrible loss. In this day before cell phones and computers, it was nearly impossible to find someone on short-notice. My dad had called the highway patrols in Florida and the states in between with a description of the car, in the hopes they could find my grandma. In the heat of July, my great-granddaddy decided it was best to go ahead with the funeral on the third day. My grandma arrived home a day later and a few years ago, with grandma then well into her nineties, she spoke of how upsetting it was not to be present, not to be able to see her mother before her body was lowered into the hole by Culdee Presbyterian Church.
My great-grandma was in her early 70s, which now doesn’t seem so old. She was out in the fields, by her son’s pond, picking strawberries, or so I’d remembered. But that must not be right, for strawberries in this part of the country are harvested long before the heat of July. Maybe it was blackberries or some vegetable she and my great-granddaddy were gathering when she had a stroke. Granddaddy who was five years older, ran back home to call for help. But it was too late.
We were living in Virginia then. My Dad loaded up the car and we drove south, in time to make the visitation at the funeral home in Carthage. The next day the funeral was held at Culdee. We sat up front with the family, a couple rows back from my great-granddaddy, who sat on the first row, a bit in shock. The casket was up front, below the pulpit. Afterwards, with three men on each side, the box containing the lifeless body of one who had dedicated a lifetime to her family and her church, was carried out into the adjacent cemetery where Mr. Fitch, the preacher, said a few final words of scripture, reminding us of our hope in the resurrection, as the casket was lowered into sandy soil watered with tears. There was probably a big dinner afterwards, but I don’t remember. My main memories fifty years later are of my great-grandma’s hands, the dinners on the back lawn, and how happy she was to see us whenever we walked through the woods from our house to hers when we lived next door.
Long and Lynch, in The Good Funeral, remind us that taking care of the dead is something instilled in our humanity. We have to deal with the body whether it is to be buried, burned or disposed at sea. We also have to deal with our own grief, for the loss affects not just the deceased and those close (their spouse or children), but the whole community. So the community comes together to remember, to take care of the body in an honorable way, and to offer up the life that is no more to God. We honor the dead for to do anything else would strike a blow at our own humanity.