Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Mountain Funerals

Family cemeteries are common in the mountains; this one was very near our home.
It was a bright January morning when we were taking some pictures around the Clinic for use in newsletters and promotional materials. I remember how our lab-tech, Pam, was laughing and we were all cutting up as cameras clicked. Laughing until the phone call came, anyway. Then Pam rushed off to the hospital where mining officials told her that her young husband, Travis, would be taken after being injured at a local coal mine. The air turned tense and prayerful. Unbelievably we learned a couple hours later that he was dead. Nobody had the heart to work, especially since so many clinic staff had close family members who worked in underground mines. And so my first experience with mountain funerals was with a young staff member, and it was grievous. My second experience came later with the death of another staff member’s brother. He too died too young and sadness gripped again.

Mountain funerals proved to be different from customs I had experienced before. One difference greets travelers immediately if they wander mountain roads: the small family cemeteries dotting many rocky slopes, or the obvious gravesites in yards or tucked up on mountain ridges behind homes. I wondered where an outsider might be buried when they died, especially if they didn’t own property or belong to an extended family with burial rights in their cemetery. I learned that mountain families will graciously extend an invitation for burial to people they esteem fitting for a family plot; otherwise the cemetery at the county seat will have to do...price tag and all. One of our staff nurse’s assured me that either Alan or I could be buried in her family’s cemetery when we died.

Funerals are huge community events in the mountains, bringing together families and friends in a way no other ritual can do. With tangled networks of extended families, a funeral becomes a big event. Women begin cooking almost immediately for the crowds that will gather and stay with the bereaved family, generally at their family church, for at least the days of the wake and funeral. Singing and preaching, grieving and visiting take place in the afternoon and long into the night before the day of a funeral. This wakefulness is appropriately called a “wake” and hearkens back to the time when most families kept watch over a body at home all night, sometimes including religious ceremonies to mark the time. In the mountains the wake generally takes place at church (although sometimes in a home), with mourners coming and going to pay their respects, view the corpse, and participate as long as they wish in the singing or preaching going on.

The funerals I attended were typical of mountain funerals, I was told, with their hell-fire-and-brimstone preaching and revival atmosphere. This seems to be a favorite time to preach ‘getting saved’ to the many non-churchgoers who attend. People seemed to expect the lengthy preaching, and the heightened emotions of grief added to the drama of revival. Such deep emotion coupled with the intensely personal nature of country hymns, and a funeral became a deep cauldron of raw grief. The one element missing, it seemed, was that almost no mention was made of the person lying dead in the room. I had the feeling that if the body had been absent, the meeting could have been held anyway…just called a tent-meeting or revival.

Mountain funerals were not gussied up affairs. They did not take place in a funeral home, but in the familiarity of a family church. The ones I attended had to no Power Point or video presentation of the person’s life. I did not see morticians dressed in suits hovering in the back, only mourners in the clean clothing of the everyday. I found it easy to strike up conversations with strangers in the church yard since funerals seemed to lessen people’s reserve. I remember the young man who talked on and on about the brotherhood of coal miners and how deeply any of their deaths affected him, and the young woman who insisted that she would never let her husband go down in the mine again.

As each body was taken to his burial I knew that his grave site would be well tended and that every summer family would gather there to remember. Cemetery reunions are a mainstay of mountain life, a tradition birthed in the days when circuit-riding preachers couldn’t get to the mountains until roads became passable in spring. His arrival meant funerals (or memorials) were celebrated en masse at that time and the family gatherings at cemeteries continue today, although they tend to be held throughout the summer months. Like the funerals preceding the burials, cemetery reunions have lots of preaching, visiting, and remembering. It’s just a mountain thing.

No comments: