Monday, December 21, 2009

A Southern Funeral

I went to a funeral Saturday. It was my first cousin's husband. She passed away several years ago. He was 82 and the passing was not expected. He simply could not handle surgery for an abdominal aneurysm. There was one child, a son, who is a year older than me. There was not a lot of grief, but the service was worse than I anticipated.

I have been going to funerals since I was born, I suppose. My father took me to a relative's funeral when I was very small, but I still have vague memories of it. I have seen people almost get into caskets. One of my first cousins fainted while standing in front of my aunt's casket. I was about 7 or 8 at the time. I have been to tragic funerals, the worst of which was held in the church at the time that the deceased's wedding would have been held. She was the victim of a drunk driver...her fiancee. He lived to go to jail for it.

This past weekend re-awakened a memory of a tradition that I thought was long since forgotten. At the end of the service the attendees were given the option to parade in front of the open casket, stare at the deceased, and express condolences to the his family on the front row. We declined, as did another cousin. The body had lain in state prior to the service, and everyone who wanted to do so had spoken with the family. In addition a visitation had been held the night before.

The worst part of the service, however, was the "sermon." I have never seen the need to say more than a few comforting words and memories over the deceased by the preacher and/or a friend or family member. This funeral was way over the top. The "preacher" ranted and raved for well over a half hour railing against sin and admonishing those in attendance to "get right with God, now before its too late." He yelled and hollered words of fear about death and hell. About every three or four sentences were followed by a pause, punctuated by a loud, "ha!". He shed tears. He laughed. It was quite a performance. My grandmother would have referred to him as "an old holiness preacher." He was, incidentally, Southern Baptist. By the way, there was some "shouting" and many "amens" as well.

To make matters even worse, the deceased was a Mason and an Oddfellow. The weather was quite cold and snow was blowing, so the Masonic and Oddfellow lodges had to do their thing during the church service. The "ceremonies" these gentlemen performed took me back to my childhood and little boys forming clubs and making up secret rituals and hand signals. It is true that little boys never grow up.

Did I mention that there were two other preachers involved? Oh, yes. It would not be a good southern funeral unless there were a few others to prolong the agony and keep the sinners inflamed. Fortunately, the other two were much calmer. One was very good, speaking a few quiet words of encouragement. The other praised the "hollering" preacher for his fine "sermon" and talked more about himself than the deceased.

The highlights of the service was the music. It was provided by a rather good family quartet, which sang several songs in the southern gospel quartet style. The first song was "Jordan," also called "Cold Jordan" by the Grateful Dead, and written by a local song writer, Fred Rich. Emmy Lou Harris also recorded the song and the author had to take her and others to task because he was not given credit for a copywritten song. It made his later days much more "comfortable." I digress, however. Usually the music at funerals is sad and related to the, "sinner, 'fess up before it's too late. You see this dead person here. It could be you," line.

Had this person not been a relation, I would probably have feigned illness and gotten the heck out of there when the hollering started. I know my wife would have. How we would have explained both of us getting sick, I do not know, but I would not have sat through that mess. I have seen so many families put through the ringer at funerals by unfeeling preachers, who only want to recruit more souls for the flock, rather than comfort the grieving family. Why families allow themselves to be exploited is beyond me, but I suspect it is the fact that they are brainwashed to believe that this kind of service is necessary for the deceased to properly "enter the kingdom of heaven."

Funerals are, unfortunately, a part of life. I have always thought that African Americans have the right attitude about funerals. They are celebrations of life, not a sad vehicle for the saving of souls. There is lively music, clapping, and laughing. It is a joyous occasion, a "home-going." There are words from family, friends and co-workers. Often a proclamation from the church is read, proclaiming the day in honor of the deceased. Why the rest of the world can't get it, I do not know.