- Cullman, Alabama


March 10, 2013

SOUTHERN STYLE: Southern funerals

In the South we take casseroles to people who have illness or death in the family. We call it comfort food. Comfort food is usually a high calorie, very rich, savory casserole or an old-fashioned dish like chicken and dumplings, baked ham, dressing or cheesy dishes that involve noodles or pasta.

Alternative comfort foods are chocolate layer cakes, banana puddings, yellow cakes dripping with homemade caramel icing and lemon ice box pie.

Mothers fix plates for their children, shoo them out on the porch or deck in nice weather, clear away the dishes and “tsk, tsk” about how the bereaved didn’t eat enough, and needs to go lay down in a dark bedroom.

Then they begin to murmur quietly while they sweep and load the dishwasher, about what a  good job was done with the deceased’s hair or makeup. “Didn’t he look natural?” you’ll hear them ask. “She looks better now than before she died!” or maybe, “He didn’t even look like himself.”

When I was little I wondered if they might have slipped someone else in the casket…I always waited for some aunt to say, “Well, it didn’t look a thing like Mable, I think we might have sent in the wrong body!” But no one ever did.

Sometimes lines are long at wakes. People start telling family stories about the dearly departed. This happened to one friend in particular who told the man in line behind him several heartwarming stories about his recently deceased relative. Just as they came to the door to view, the elderly gentleman realized he was at the wrong viewing. He said "I'll just go on in, I feel like I know him now."

One of the most famous Southern funerals took place when Elvis (God rest his soul) passed from this life. I know women who will fight you if you say that out loud. They really believe that the Memphis legend is living somewhere in America, undercover, working as an impersonator of himself.

I actually know one woman who swears that she saw sweat on his brow in the casket. “Now, you know that a dead body don’t sweat,” she would declare. “That was a wax impression made by the same person who does them Chinese Theatre wax statues. They made one that looked just like Elvis and that wax started melting when it got too hot. I know this for a fact. I saw it with my own eyes.”

I thought she was going to jump out of a moving vehicle once when the rest of us in the car wouldn’t believe her. But she isn’t the only one who believes that the King didn’t die. Many people think that. I personally can’t see him living quietly in seclusion all this time as a 78-year-old man with thick black sideburns and a bad comb-over. He just couldn’t do it. He would have had to break silence by now.

And besides, he had the funeral of all Southern funerals. Somebody was bound to have noticed more than just a few beads of sweat.

That was surely one of the top ten wailing and gnashing of teeth wakes of all time. But his is not the most calculated sort of funeral, even if it was probably the one with the most flamboyant mourners.

No, the most premeditated sort of funeral goers’ are the ladies of the Casserole Brigade. This group of ladies read the obituary columns religiously, looking for forlorn and lonely widowers, of the right age, and with the right address. You’ll notice them earnestly consoling the bereaved husband while standing over the still warm body. They will profess their admiration for the deceased wife while gently pressing themselves against the chest of the grieving husband.

 These are the women who come to the house a week later to offer more condolences. They dress in their Sunday best, cook their most delectable casserole (the most industrious ones have a selection waiting in the freezer for just such an occasion) and go marching up to the door. Ladies of the Casserole Brigade usually put a piece of adhesive tape on the bottom of each dish so that it can be returned, carefully adding their address and phone number.

I know women who have logged up to four husbands using this method of reeling them in while they are still in shock.  

Yes, Southern funerals are usually big affairs, and often the only time when cousins get together. Someone always says, “It’s a cryin’ shame that it takes a funeral for us to get together,” and others will nod and agree, “It sure is…we need to do this more often.” But some of them don’t really mean it, they’re just being nice.

However, aside from the Casserole Brigade, we Southerners normally do mean well. That funeral food is really meant to comfort. It’s amazing what fried chicken and Mamaw’s deviled eggs can do for a broken heart.


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