Southern Funeral Etiquette

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Always go to the funeral.

I don’t remember anyone ever specifically saying that out loud to me. But there was never any doubt that’s the expectation. To Southerners, funerals are one of the most important demonstrations of friendship and family ties. They are big affairs. And there are lots of rules.

A point of clarity here, there are two kinds of funerals: tragic or sad. Tragic funerals are ones where someone died too soon, either from illness, accident or violence. Those funerals are awful. They shouldn’t be happening. There is a cosmic unfairness to it all.

Sad funerals are for those who lived long, worked hard, and have come to the end of the line. No one is ever ready to let go of loved ones, but when their time is up, it’s easier to make peace with it.

There are no rules for tragic funerals. You just get through them as best you can. Sad funerals have a strict protocol. If you’re not following it, you’re an embarrassment to your family.

Funeral Attire

Not long ago, I was perusing a fashion blog. One of the suggested posts was funeral attire. Out of morbid curiosity, I clicked on it. The writer explained that unless you’ve been told otherwise, stick to the basics: dark colors, modest hemlines and shoes that are possible to walk through a cemetery if you plan to attend the graveside service.

I was cruising right along, thinking, this woman should really be on staff at funeral parlors across the country. Despite what you might think is obvious advice, my experiences at funerals have led me to believe, many people don’t actually know this.

Attendance:

That’s when I read a line that stopped me cold, “I’ve been to four funerals in my life…” In her life? This woman is either a hermit, who has no friends or family, or she ain’t from around here.

It’s not a stretch for me to go to four funerals in one year! I am not an anomaly; most Southerners are funeral attenders. It’s what we do.

Public vs. Private:

I’m told by Yankee friends that funerals in other places are not generally viewed as public events. They are much more reserved and private, family events. To some degree, I suppose that makes sense, if respectful, solemn occasions are the sort of thing you’re into. But, funerals here tend to be a kind of Bon Voyage party for the end of a life well-lived.

Maybe it’s because we feel like we’re all related in the South. Maybe living in the Bible Belt gives preachers a chance to keep topics related to death top of mind. Maybe the need for communal upkeep of rural cemeteries evolved into “Dinner on the Grounds” at the church graveyard. But Southerners have made death so intertwined with life that attending funerals seems natural.

Food:

Southern women may not be able to fix the grief you are feeling, but we can feed you. The moment the news of a death spreads, casseroles will show up on your doorstep…whether you want them or not. There is very little that is not improved with devilled eggs (on the egg plate your neighbor got as a wedding gift that has her name in Sharpie on the underside because she’s gonna need that back), every possible variation of noodles and cheese, several bean dishes from the “Freezes Beautifully” section of the cookbook.

I’m not sure why, but you have just not done this properly without deviled eggs.

Also, someone is going to bring over a Jell-O mold with fruit and whipped cream inside. It will sit on the table, barely touched, until someone puts it out of its misery and runs it down the kitchen disposal. Jell-O mold lady is usually the same person who sewed lace to the Wal-Mart bath towels she got you for a wedding gift. You know, to fancy it up a bit.

Music:

The increase in popularity of 7-11 praise songs in Evangelical churches creates some tension at funerals. (Seven words, repeating eleven times…almost always including the word “awesome.”)

Traditional hymns are most appropriate, but you just never know how that’s gonna go, since there is now an entire generation of churchgoers who’ve never cracked a hymnal. They read words off a big screen up front.

Sermon:

This can be the trickiest part of a funeral. The minister has people under his roof he may never get back again. Should he do an altar call? Should he go with the tortured Lazarus analogy that never quite lands? Should he ask the congregation, “If you were to die tonight, do you know where you’d wake up in the morning?”

You should be prepared that the name of God’s only son will also vary slightly. JEE-zus will be in whose name we pray at the church or funeral home. JAY-zus will be who saved the dearly departed’s soul at the graveside.

I suppose it only makes sense that people who live their lives by rules of etiquette, manners and customs, would expect the very same in death. It’s also helpful for a group of people who are always be looking for ways to keep themselves occupied (see: needlepoint and knitting) to create something to do in the face of so much pain.

But more than anything, every culture and tribe needs a way to process grief. Ancient people had tribal rituals; Jewish people sit Shiva; Catholics can pray the rosary. But none of those particular groups ever had much sway below the Mason Dixon line. The rise of religious traditions that depend on inspiration rather than ritual creates a need to seek ritual in other places. We found ours in casseroles. And always, always going to the funeral.

Image Sources: BigStock

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