Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Sitting Up with The Dead

I come from a southern family. We are rife with southern traditions and beliefs. What you ask does that mean? Well when someone passes away and in the south they don’t die they pass away everyone pitches in and starts cooking. There are enough casseroles cooked and chicken deep fried to feed a small country. You will find everything from store bought pies to the most gourmet meals brought to your home. Believe me store bought does not go unnoticed. You will be judged by the ladies of the church if you bring a bag of Fritos and a can of bean dip. These things will begin arriving within moments your loved one takes his last and final breath. Now the next thing to happen is the relatives start showing up. I don’t just mean your Aunt Betty and Uncle Dave who live across town I’m talking about those who live in the deepest darkest jungles of Africa will get word that Granny Ella passed away and they will hop the nearest zebra and make connections on the next crocodile fighting through brush and bush to make it to the viewing.

I’m sure that viewings are common most everywhere. Some people call them wakes, some people call them sitting up with the dead and others just call it a viewing. It doesn’t have to be an open casket to be a viewing either. It is kind of like people in Texas calling all soda pops Coke. That’s just what it’s called. This is where everyone goes to the funeral home and they stand around hugging and talking and telling stories about the deceased. Now if it’s a real viewing and it’s an open casket it is mandatory to say things such as “doesn’t he look natural” or “he looks better than he has in years”. There are even a few “she looks just like she did when she was 23” as if you regress in age when you die. A long time ago they would have the viewing at the house and not at the funeral parlor as it was called in my youth. When held at the house it was customary for someone to sit up with the body.

I really don’t remember many of these happening. The one I do remember was my friend’s dead grandmother was placed in the dinning room and she had to sit up all night with her mother watching the body. She said it was really scary and she kept waiting for her granny to sit up and tell them all to quit that damn crying and go shell some peas. I had nightmares about this for weeks and so did my friend. I’ve read that the reason they did this in the old days was to keep the rodents away from the body. Working in the nursing home I had many people tell me that they had been body sitting and had the body sit up or pass gas. I’m sorry but that would just plain freak me out and I wouldn’t be sitting up with anybody dead or alive.

I tell you this to share one of my family’s stories. I had a step-grandmother. She was a nice lady but we were never close. She was the type of lady who everything in her house was powder puff pink, including her house. My grandfather on the other hand was anything but a powder puff. He was gruff and grumbly and worked hard everyday of his life. He lost my grandmother when they were in their early fifties and immediately married Faye. Faye was very demur and quiet; very prim and proper. Now my family has been accused of many things but prim and proper aren’t on the list. So she was an outcast from the beginning. Another oddity about Faye was that teenagers and young adults seemed to frighten her. She would latch the screen should we show up to visit our grandfather and if he were not at home she would not unlatch the door at all. She wouldn’t invite us in for lemonade and cookies like a normal grandmother, she would instead latch the screen and shew you away. She also did not like strangers of any kind in her home. She would be a complete and totally freak if there were strangers in her home. I took a boyfriend of mine over to visit my grandfather one time and I thought she was going to beat him with a broom just for standing on her welcome mat.

My grandfather was off working one day and Granny Faye, who preferred for us to just call her Faye, decided she would mow the yard in the 100 degree West Texas Heat. Now I should probably mention that she was 80 years old and had really bad arthritis. She put on her pedal pushers and her Grasshopper sneakers and went out to cut the grass to exactly 1 “. She fired up the lawn mower and got about one-fourth of the lawn cut when she killed over with a heart attack. Now we were all sad that this happened as really she was a nice lady and had taken excellent care of our grandfather for over 30 years.

The call went out and sure enough from far and wide on both sides of the family people started appearing at my grandfather’s house. Food was brought in by the truck loads, flowers and cards started arriving and so did the vultures. You know the ones I’m talking about. The ones who show up and don’t leave empty handed. They say things like “Aunt Faye wanted me to have this Hummel statue.” Only that didn’t belong to Aunt Faye it actually belonged to ny Nanny years before and was by all rights still the possession of my grandfather. You would find them rummaging through closets and under beds. They would take the toilet paper right out of the bathroom if you don’t watch them and what’s more you never know to whom they are really related.

I digress.

My daddy went with my grandfather to the funeral home to set up the viewing. They got there and my grandfather looked at the placard on one of the viewing room of which there are three. He saw a familiar name and said “Oh Bob! Look that’s Old Man Williams” and proceeded to go into the room next to Mr. Williams viewing room. He looked in the casket and cried a little and said “Bob, doesn’t Old Man Williams look good?” My daddy not really paying attention said “yeah he looks good” then walked out of the room and it dawned on him that wasn’t Mr. Williams. “Dad, that isn’t Mr. Williams he is in the room next to this one.” Grandad looked in the casket and said “Yeah I thought he look too good to be Old Man Williams.”

There was the viewing and then the next day was the funeral and more food and people arrived. The house was packed full of people and they were touching things and picking up pictures and telling stories and laughing, which is not unusual at our family funerals. My daddy, my Auntie V and I were all sitting outside the sliding glass door on the patio enjoying a little breather and drinking some iced tea. All of a sudden the sliding glass door opened all by itself and then slammed shut. A cold breeze swept across the three of us and my aunt looked at us and said “well I guess Faye’s pissed off about there being all those strangers in her house.” Needless to say her daughter and grandson who happened to be sitting across from us did not find this amusing.


The Texas Woman said...

Body sitting. The exact reason I can't stand the smell of cut flowers, especially when mixed with funeral home smells!

The Texas Woman

MJ said...

Ah, Southern life. Ain't it grand?

Anonymous said...

You left out the part where all of us cousins were cutting up and laughing (which we can't help doing when we all get together)when suddenly Faye's only REAL grandson screamed at us for having so much fun when his grandmother has just died. That, of course,made us just laugh louder and harder.
Damn, no wonder Faye hated us ..hahahaha
Quirky cousin

gigi said...

As always, you tellin the truth 'bout matters in the south.

Karen said...

What a great story--it's making me flash back to my youth. I grew up in Michigan, but as I like to tell everyone, I'm half hillbilly (my dad's from Tennessee), and that side of the family was exactly like this. Only--we'd be the far-flung ones on zebras, coming down from the north for the viewing. And my family was the type to fling themselves on the caskets as they were lowered into the ground. Ah the memories--good times.

I loved this entry--you're a great storyteller!

Mrs4444 said...

Wow. That's bizarre! Very cool. Your stories are always so great (long, but well-worth the read, my friend :)

Girly Stuff said...

Wakes are weird. Everyone stands around laughing and chatting with their backs to the deceased.

But it is usually a good time. And you can't beat the food at the post- funeral dinner.

The Texas Woman said...

Maybe not the best post to tell you how mad I am at YOU! I'VE HAD ABOUT 13 SUGAR SANDWICHES SINCE YOU JOGGED MY MEMORY ABOUT THEM!!! Dern your hide for doing that!

And dern my hide for eating them!But boy, they are as good as my hips remember them!

The Texas Womsn

United Studies said...

Have you ever been to an Italian wake and funeral? If you didn't know any different, you would think you walked into a party. Or maybe it's just my Dad's family that is that way.

And strange thing is...whenever there is a death in the family, the first thing I think of is food. We need to eat and keep up our strength. Weird.

Katherine Roberts Aucoin said...

I've heard about body sitting.

I was aghast when I saw "Places in the Heart" with Sally Field when they brought he dead husband home and laid him out on the dining room table.

Anonymous said...

OMG! I have always had a fear of "the dead". I know you can't blame your parents for EVERYTHING, but mine never explained death. They just got all anxious and took me to, let's say, my Aunt's house for a Shiva. Uncle Sam had died and I was in about 4th grade and had no idea what was going on.

Going to funerals and Shivas has always caused me a lot of stress and since we live in a close-knit Italian neighborhood, I have been to my share of wakes with open and closed caskets.

I think what did me in was the movie "The Three Faces of Eve". I saw that movie in a psychology class in college in 198-something and ran back to my dorm hyperventilating when it was over.

Now my husband was just given the flag that was draped over his grandfather's casket and it's in his office at home in a triangular box. Well, now I can't go in there alone. And, because that's where the laundry lands after it gets thrown down the chute, the laundry has been piling up. I know I'm a wimp, but as I get older I realize that's just who I am and I'll never change!

Gladys said...

Oh Y'all I'm so glad I'm not alone in the humor at a wake section. Thanks for all your comments. I enjoy reading other peoples experiences too.

Cher - Did your family press some of the flowers in the family bible?
Oh and sorry about the samwhiches

MJ - Yes it is and great for blog fodder.

Quirky Cousin - OMG I forgot about how Mad Mr. Professional Bowler was.

Gigi- It's who I am

Karen - I went to a funeral one time where the family hired "professional" mourners. They actually WAILED! Scared me to death.

Mrs 4's - yeah sorry about the length but honestly you haven't talked to me in person. This is pretty short ;)

Girly - My most famous dish is Death Chicken. My oldest daughter begs for it when i go to visit her.

Jackie - yes I have long time ago. It was a lady that I got attached to in the retirement home. I have never eaten such delicious food nor have I ever laughed as hard at a funeral. They were telling Uncle Tony stories and I was crying.

Katherine- Yeah that scene always gets me too.

Boomba - My Grandmother died when I was 5. They made me kiss her goodbye. I had nightmares about my grandmother for years.

gigi said...

Gladys, I was born in Jacksonville, Fla. Grew up just 45 miles south of there. Left home and marred a GA. boy and now only live 1 hour north of Jax. in southern, GA. Been to a lot of southern funerals they are a real trip. That's what I mean by you're 'tellin the truth'!!!

Leslie @ Hobbs Holler said...

I remember working at the local newspaper and our editorial guy would come in to the office in a huff when someone would buy space for a flowery obituary. "They didn't pass away, they didn't go to meet the heavenly father", he would complain, "they died, dang it, died!". And that's the way he always wrote it in the general obits. Of course, it has been some time since he passed away, climbed the stairway to Heaven, went to fly with the angels...

Anonymous said...

I've just buried my Grand mother in Ireland and sat up with her in the wake. We laugh too. A lot. Probably the whiskey ;)