Southern urbanization is changing the face of the antebellum South. Customs and traditions seem to just fade away as time passes by and the South become more “modern”. Perhaps the more disturbing of these changes for the older, and more conservative southern population, are the way funeral customs seem to have faded away in many of the less rural areas of the southern United States. Southerners are universally known as friendly, pleasant and polite people. Rudeness, no matter what the reason, is just unacceptable. A favorite way of describing life in the south seems to be that “a true southerner always has time to stop and smell the roses”. A courteous way of describing a life style that is laid back and easy going, not the headache of the rush and bustle of urban modern life we find today.
A profound respect for death and the grieving is traditional among the population of the southern states. But as urban developments rise in previously rural areas, it seems that many in the “new” south have abandoned traditions and customs which were once at the core of southern life. Death and its rituals and customs have begun to fall victim to the modern era’s way of thinking. As Southern culture becomes more diverse, technology replaces personal relationships and the new south represses many of these time honored traditions in favor of more conventional methods of honoring and disposing of the dead. Many traditions that are as old as the south itself are just no longer practiced or taught to the children of the next generation.
One time honored tradition that comes to mind is the practice of pulling a motor vehicle off the road to show respect for a funeral procession as it makes its slow, winding way from the funeral home to the cemetery. Born from the days of yore, when rural towns only had dirt or gravel roads, many only two lanes, this tradition started as a simple necessity. People would move their vehicles off to the side of the road to allow doctors and other emergency personnel to pass the procession on their way to a house call or other emergency. Some people would exit their vehicles in order to pray for the deceased and their family and loved ones as the procession passed by.
As time negated the necessity for this unspoken traffic rule, the tradition of pulling a vehicle off the road continued as a method of showing respect for the dead and their grieving loved ones. While it is difficult to continue this tradition in larger cities, some small rural areas still honor this custom. It is not unfamiliar to see a funeral procession and for people to pull off to the shoulder of the road and exit their vehicles, placing their hands over their hearts, man removing their caps in respect for the dead. But alas, even in smaller towns and rural areas, this tradition seems to be fading as well. This seems to be a distinctly southern and mid western tradition as many from northern areas have no knowledge of it tourists often remark on its practice.
Home wakes or viewing of the deceased are also quickly becoming a thing of the past. This tradition has been in decline since the early 1900’s but as we approached the new millennium, it was rarely heard of, even in the south. In the old south, there were very few funeral parlors, and many persons lived vast distances away from towns where it was convenient to visit when someone passed away with the slow modes of transportation of the past, so home wakes were a common event.
Wakes are a time for loved ones to gather together and comfort each other, take one final view of the deceased in remembrance and band together in their grief to over come it. Southern wakes are traditionally two to three days long and often involve many friends, family and neighbors visiting the home or funeral parlor and giving condolences to the family of the deceased, often bringing food for the family and other gifts to show their sympathy for their mourning. It was always considered polite to attend the wake of someone you knew, even if they were only an acquaintance from your local church or familiar visitor to a store you both frequented. Visitors usually stayed anywhere from 15 minutes to several hours depending on how well they knew the deceased and their family. Friends of the deceased family often used this time to take on chores for them so they could concentrate on the funeral and wake. Neighbors would come by and tend the garden and yard, wash laundry and do light housekeeping for the family during their time of grief.
During the wake, the deceased are usually displayed in an open casket for a final viewing of loved ones. They are dressed in their finest clothing, wearing their most prized jewelry and sometimes small objects that were of particular meaning to them are placed in the casket as well. Burying loved ones with familiar or personal items is a practice that dates back to the dawn of time. Before casket viewing, the deceased were often displayed in such a manner in their homes on their bed or couch. At home wakes, it was regarded as vulgar and distasteful to have a public viewing of the deceased in their coffin. Some funeral homes in the past displayed the deceased for their final viewing on large four poster beds, regally decked out in satin or silk bedding with large canopies and drapes.
The deceased is usually surrounded by flowers at the viewing, brought as gifts by guests to the funeral, sometimes plants which would later be taken home and planted by family attending the wake, nurtured in remembrance of their loved one. This tradition is commonly believed to be of Germanic origin, where in some regions it was a usual practice to plant a tree at the birth or death of a family member, stemming from an even older, pagan practice. Some people believe it came from a Celtic tradition from a ritual related to the religion of the druids. There is no way to know for sure.
It is a commonly held belief that the three days of a wake began as a European custom to ensure the deceased was really dead and not just sick and appearing dead, and was brought to the south as pioneers settled there. Three days also gave long distance loved ones time to travel to attend the funeral. While today we certainly don’t need three days to decide if someone is dead or not, it seems to continue to be the proper waiting period between death and interment for those who follow traditional funeral customs. The exception in the past being when burial was of a pressing matter such as in war time, during periods of severe weather such as flooding and drought or during times of wide spread disease where it was of necessity to bury the deceased as soon as possible to avoid contamination to the living.
Southern funerals in particular are known as being extravagant affairs. Tradition passed down from antebellum times dictate formal attire, lavish accompaniments of fan fair, an array of exotic flowers and plants given as sympathy gifts and displayed prominently throughout the viewing area, large buffets of food for guests at the funeral and special honors for the immediate family of the deceased such as renting a limousine for the family to ride to the burial. Visitors are expected to give extra consideration to family members. Formal dress is prescribed as the norm because to attend a funeral in the south in less conventional attire would draw attention away from the deceased and, well, its just considered plain rude.
Some small towns still offer police escorts for the funeral procession to avoid traffic problems, most for a miniscule fee, some may not even charge. Most larger cities have abandoned this practice. It was once considered a courtesy extended to the family, especially to wealthier or prominent citizens given by the city to show respect for their grief. Whether the viewing of the deceased is at home or at a funeral parlor, there was always sure to be a separate room for the family to relax from the tiresome line of sympathy givers, receive guests privately, and enjoy a meal in peace, usually provided by caring members of the community thoughtful enough to bring food to alleviate the grieving from the pressure of cooking for guests. In the south, it is still considered quite rude not to offer guests something to eat or drink on any occasion.
The tradition of the large funeral comes down to us from the pre-civil war error when people lived scattered far and wide, homesteads being miles apart from each other. Funerals were a time to pause the drudgery of daily life on plantations and homesteads and visit with family and friends that were less often seen due to their distance from each other. Not only was it a time of reflection on life and remembrance of the deceased, but a time to comfort the living. Many larger plantations would hold week long galas revolving around the funeral of a loved one.
As time passes, it seems these affairs have gotten smaller and less time consuming. Something that is often remarked upon by older members of the community. In years gone by, it was not uncommon to attend a funeral that lasted three to four hours, normally in a church setting, where guests would attend in a sermon like atmosphere. The pastor or religious leader of the community would preach to people, reminding them of their own morality and admonishing them to spend their life wisely, reaping what they would sow in the afterlife. Afterward their would be time for family members and close friends to speak a few words about their memory’s of the deceased. These eulogies would often reflect what most would consider some of the highlights of their life, their accomplishments, their good qualities as a person and their deeds in life. Families with strong oral traditions still pass on stories of loved ones in this way.
Modern funerals rarely resemble those of the recent past. Most only last a short time, and often leave little or no time for eulogies, funeral homes pressed to keep funerals on a tight schedule. It seems as society progresses, the old ways of the south, pausing for reflection of the finality of death, have given way to the speedy, fast paced ways of modern life. People no longer have time in their busy lives to attend a long, drawn out ritual of death and this is reflected by the brevity of many modern funerals. Modern trends are leaning towards strictly graveside services with perhaps a short viewing time a day before or even the day of the funeral. In times past, it was unheard of for the family of the deceased to be present as the casket was lowered into the ground. Now a days, this is a common practice, the deceased loved ones not even slightly dispersed before dirt is poured over the casket. This leads many of the older generation wondering, is life just becoming too fast?