Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A Southern Funeral

There is a rhythm to Southern Funerals that I wonder is unique to this region of the country.  First, there is the phone call telling you that someone has "passed".  We always say "passed", not "died" when making these calls, although I have deliberately chosen to make the more blunt assessment.  The person has not "passed" (passed what?  Gas? A kidney stone?) or "passed away" (again, from what?), but the person has DIED.  I am sensitive to many folks needs to be more gentle about discussing death, but as long as I'm not harsh or crude about it, I see no reason why I shouldn't state what is the case:  a person has died.

In the case of my Grandma Sookie*, we knew she was on the decline and was going to die of congestive heart failure since she had been placed in hospice.

*Pardon this interruption, but I must explain the "Grandma Sookie" part.  Most people are like, "Grandma WHAT?!?"  My grandmother was given the nickname "Snooks" by my great-grandpa, Andrew Jackson Felts, because she had naturally curly hair just like a cartoon character in the late 1920s called "Snooks".  The nickname stuck, but everyone ended up calling her Snookie.  With today's "Snooki" being that over-tanned tramp from Jersey Shore, the irony is pretty thick.  I'm not sure my grandma knew about the 2010 "Snooki" or that she'd appreciate the name being associated with the TV girl.  Anyway, as a child, I could not say "Snookie" as I learned to talk.  It always came out "Sookie", so she became "Grandma Sookie" to me, and will always be "Grandma Sookie" aka "Bad Grandma".*

So when Mom called me last Thursday, Oct 14 to tell me that the end was near, the doctors said she was in her final hours as her systems were shutting down, I was not surprised.  She then called back 20 minutes later to tell me she had died.  My only thought was to make sure that I was there for my mother through the coming ordeal of my grandma's funeral.

Mom beat me to Nashville, since she was coming from Lexington, KY and I was coming from Atlanta, GA. That first night, we went to eat Hibachi, and I bought my mom two strong Mai Tais to make sure she'd sleep soundly.  The plan worked, and she was fast asleep within 30 minutes after we returned to the hotel. 

When I had received word from my mom that Grandma Sookie had died, I immediately called my paternal grandparents, who are now my ONLY grandparents.  I had to leave a message but I figured they may be out.  But the fact they had not called back by the time we were in the hotel getting ready for bed, made me think that they might have gone off on a trip.  Usually, my grandma will call me before they run off somewhere in case "something happens".  This time, they didn't.  I called the cell phone number I had, and my grandpa answered it.  After asking if everything was OK, I told him that Grandma Sookie had died.  They were in north GA looking at the leaves, and had thought of going down to Atlanta to see me, not knowing that I was now in Nashville.  Their farm is 40 minutes west of Nashville in Bon Aqua, TN, so I told them we had gotten a hotel closer to Joelton because of the back-and-forth.  They understood but said we're more than welcome to come back and spend the night at the farm on Saturday.  I'd already "spent" the Marriott points, so I declined.

We slept in on Friday, getting up about 10:30am.  My cousin, Mary Frances, who just goes by Frances, had been my grandmother's primary careperson the last year or so of her life.  She had the power of attorney, which was fine because neither I nor my mom could have done the things that needed to be done prior to death.  Frances told us that the funeral home had an appointment available for noon or 2pm.  We picked noon, had some Waffle House for breakfast, and headed out to Joelton, TN... ground zero for my mother's side of the family.

We met at Anderson & Garrett funeral home, where EVERY member of my mother's family has had his/her funeral since my great-grandpa died in 1955 of a heart attack.  It's located across the street from Joelton Middle School (which was Joelton High School back in the 1930s and 1940s when my grandmother's generation attended there) at the crossroads of two major roads.  It looks kind of like Twelve Oaks from Gone With the Wind.

Turns out that Frances had done some prep work before we arrived.  My grandmother had thankfully purchased two burial policies that would just cover the expenses of burying her.  We picked out a simple white coffin and a no-frills vault.  The funeral director threw in engraving her name, years of birth and death, and an icon of our choosing.  My grandmother was all about music, so I picked out some musical notes for the icon.  The engravings were done with laser, and turned out quite nice.  I approved the jewelry that Frances had picked out, removing only one piece on the grounds of being tacky.  The jewelry was, of course, fake.

Frances said she had a million things to do before the funeral on Saturday (the next day) include making phone calls.  She was insistent that we have a full 4 hour visitation per my grandmother's wishes.  My grandmother had made a folder that included sheet music to the old-time gospel songs she wanted sung.  To this list, Frances wanted "Great is Thy Faithfulness" to be the final tune as it was personally meaningful to her.  It was at this time, she said that the Lord had put something on her heart that she had to say at the funeral.  My mother and I wondered what the hell it could be, but after all Frances had done for my grandmother (including putting up with a heaping helping of verbal abuse), we were inclined to let her do whatever she wanted.  I did make it clear that Mom and I wouldn't be there for the whole visitation.  4 hours was just not doable for either of us, and honestly, we expected that no one would show up until later anyway.  I announced our intention to arrive by 12:30pm, when the service would start at 1:30pm.  An hour is what we had when my father committed suicide in 2001, and that was plenty.  You have no idea how emotionally draining these "visitations" can be.  I know I had forgotten until this weekend.

After we left the funeral home, we stopped by a florist down the road.  The florist was dealing with another customer, so we had time to look around this old converted house sitting by itself, surrounded by plowed fields near the interstate.  I had hoped we could see a catalogue of "sprays" which lay on top of the coffin and just pick one at a reasonable price.  The florist was NOT helpful in this regard.  She said you could do a nice spray from $100-800.  I certainly didn't want to just say "gimme a $100 spray".  After all, this was to represent both me and my mother at the funeral.  There were certain expectations to be met.  We couldn't just buy a bundle of weeds or brush and call it a day.   I told her we were looking to spend about $150-200 max.  Of course, I meant $200 inclusive of tax, but the florist immediately jumped on spending $200 BEFORE tax.  After she said with tax, I could get a nice spray of flowers for $218, I didn't feel like I could just say, "No, I meant $200 WITH tax!"  She was talking about color palettes and different available flowers for that price.  We ultimately went with "pastels", but I had no idea what it would look like.  My catalogue idea was a non-starter.  I should have just gone online to pick something out.  My mother told me as we left that I really shouldn't have spent so much, but I told her that we had to keep up a certain standard, and I'd just deal with the cost.  The spray turned out to be really nice, and even had some beautiful purple Calla lilies in it.  Frances gushed over the spray, so I figure I did my job getting something respectable for the casket, especially since we weren't doing the Wheel.

What is the Wheel, you ask?  It is a tradition that has largely died out, as Frances learned that very few florists even knew how to do one, and fewer still were willing to execute.  My grandmother was the 8th of 12 children.  When "Pap" (my great-grandpa) died in 1955, the family started a tradition where every time someone died in the immediately family, the brothers/sisters would buy a wheel for the funeral.  At the center would be flowers representing the great-grandparents.  Each child would be a "spoke" in the wheel, with 1 o'clock being represented by the 1st born, 2 o'clock, the 2nd born, etc. all the way to 12 o'clock representing my Uncle Jerry Felts, the youngest child.  Each living child would pay for his/her "spoke" which would go all the way to the middle.  Any dead child would be represented by a "broken spoke" that would go halfway.  The deceased child would have a half-spoke and a dove on it.  I guess the dove was in the middle when the parents died.  Anyway, since 1955, this wheel has represented "The Family" at each funeral of a brother or sister.  Aunt Janie, the 11th child, was responsible for the Wheel since the 1990s at least.  Before she died, she made Frances promise her that if she were dead, and Frances living, that EVERY sibling would have a Wheel.  This was the first death since Aunt Janie died in 2007.  Frances did a great job.  The half-spokes had to be dropped because only one child is still alive, Aunt Mary Ella.  The wheel couldn't withstand so many broken spokes, so instead of flowers, the spokes were covered with "green leaves" and a single carnation (blue for boys, pink for girls) represented all the deceased siblings.  The deceased family member's immediate family is not expected to pay for a spoke.  The relatives of previously deceased siblings are expected to donate, however.  When Aunt Janie died, her Wheel was elaborate and covered in white roses.  It also cost $800.  I think Frances was able to keep the cost of my grandmother's wheel around $300.  If I told you that Aunt Janie was simply adored by EVERYONE in the family while my grandmother simply was not, the desire to "go cheap" is understandable.  If it hadn't been for the promise to Aunt Janie, the Wheel probably would not have been there at all.

After arranging for the funeral spray, my mother took me to visit another cousin, who lives next door to Frances, named Billie Sue.  Billie Sue is the oldest daughter of my great Aunt Sis, who was the spitting image of my mother.  If you saw a picture of Aunt Sis, you'd swear that SHE was my grandmother because of the ressemblance between her and my mom.  Billie Sue has a daughter who was born 5 years to the day after my mom.  My mom was never able to get that close to her cousins because my grandmother kept her away from them.  Anyway, she has been able to reconnect with the family in recent years, as she has pulled away from my grandmother's influence and realized just how isolated she had kept her from the rest of the family, who had VERY fond memories of her as a child.   We sat in Billie Sue's house with her husband (whose name escapes me) and chatted.  It was mostly about family gossip, talking about the funeral, and what we knew of Grandma Sookie's last moments.  (She simply stopped breathing.  It was very peaceful according to Frances, who was there.)

Mom had mentioned wanting to see a movie later, so I used my iPhone to find out the closest theatre to Rivergate showing Secretariat, which we both wanted to see but had not seen yet.  That gave me and excuse to shoo us out to get back to where we were staying by 4:30pm.  We said our goodbyes, and I realized just how exhausted the afternoon of funeral planning and visiting had been.  Luckily, the movie revived my spirits so that we could enjoy a nice dinner before returning to the hotel for an early evening.

Grandma Ann and Papa (my living grandparents) told us they'd come back to Bon Aqua on Friday, and wanted to see us for the funeral.  We arranged for them to come have breakfast with us before the funeral.  It was really nice to see them, and having them there provided both my mom and myself a great deal of comfort.  They were a stablizing force, and it was good to have them there.

After stuffing ourselves at the Shoney's breakfast buffet, we went to the funeral home.  We arrived much earlier than we intended (just before noon),  but with my grandparents there, it was OK.  There were more people there than I expected.  We had several cousins and their children sitting around.  We came in, and paid our respects at the coffin.  My grandmother had a picture 8x10 of her last dog Princess by her along with a smaller photo that was taken of her, me, and my mother that she always carried in her wallet from when I was a child. 

Southern funerals are always open coffin if you can help it.  There's something about seeing the deceased in the coffin, embalmed, where you are certain they are dead.  My grandpa likes to say he wants to be embalmed because he'll damn sure be dead!  There's a fear of being buried alive that having an open coffin eases.  I also find that people want to touch the body.  The feeling of cool, plasticy skin reassures you that the person is truly dead.  It gives a finality to the death and a certain amount of closure.  When my father committed suicide, he did not want an open coffin, but I arranged for family to have alone time with the coffin open before visitation to say goodbye.  I know it was important to me to have those moments with my dad, along with the rest of the family. 

Frances was standing by the open casket by the Wheel of flowers.  She apologized to us that the Wheel was kind of crooked (spokes were not in exactly proper position), and that she'd forgotten to call the church where my grandmother was to be buried, which meant the church ladies had not had time to fix food for us.  She talked about how my grandmother would not be pleased, but we reassured her as best as we could.  My grandmother had not been a member of New Hope Free Will Baptist church in DECADES, and the food was not a big deal.  It wasn't likely we'd want to stick around post-graveside service anyway.

As the closest surviving kin, my mom was the "other" star of the show that is visitation.  Most people left me alone, which was fine.  I found it most pecular that older relatives would approach me by saying, "I bet you don't know who I am!"  Several did that with my mom too, and my only thought was, "No, I don't know you.  You know I don't know you.  Why are we pointing this out?"  After a semi-awkward silence, the relative would follow-up with "The last time I saw you, you were this big!", holding up a hand about waist high.  At this point, I would semi-laugh, and they'd let me know how we were related.  There were a handful of cousins that I knew, and I got to visit with my Aunt Cricket who is Uncle Jerry's widow, and seems to NEVER age.  She was wearing a lovely pair of black slacks, a sweater, and a matching scarf.  If I could have given a DFI (Democratic Fashion Institute (c)) award, I would have presented it to Aunt Cricket.

The man my grandmother adored, Kyle Lehning, was not able to come, but he did send flowers.  In a twist that my grandmother would have appreciated, Kyle could not come to the funeral because he had a previously scheduled recording session with Randy Travis, who my grandmother had worked with as a bookkeeper when he was starting out.

Another thing about Southern funerals is not only noting who shows up, but noting who doesn't...and why.  Most people were either out of town (like my cousin Gary) or had to be at work that Saturday.  No one blamed anyone who needed to work for not being there.  The people who where there largely showed up out of respect and love for my mother...or out of respect for the dead brother or sister they were directly descended from.  Only two sets of people were there out of grief for my grandmother, and they were about to make themselves known.

The first lady who approached me had the EXACT same hairdo as my dead grandmother, except hers was blond, while my grandma always dyed her hair red, claiming it was her "natural color".  For what it's worth, her natural hair color is the same as mine...dark brown with deep red undertones.  Natural redheads, we are not.  I don't remember this lady's name, but I do remember that my grandmother had rented from her that last time I had anything to do with her.  This was post-divorce, but pre-suicide, so sometime between 1998 and 2001.  My mom and I visited my grandmother with the intention of staying the night for Thanksgiving.  Well, some kind of big blow-up happened, and mom and I left.  That was the last time I really interacted with my grandmother much.  I don't believe she came up to Lexington when my dad committed suicide in 2001.  This lady even had to evict my grandmother for non-payment of rent... a common theme in my grandmother's life.

However, this lady and her husband managed to maintain some kind of friendship with my grandmother despite the eviction.  Lord only knows what my grandmother told her, but she told me, "Your grandmother loved you and your mother so much.  I don't think your mother really knew that, but she did.  She really had you and your mother on a pedestal.  I used to listen to her cry on the phone about the estrangement, but I really wanted you to know how proud she was of BOTH of you and how much really did love you both."

All I could do is nod my head sympathetically and repeat "Thank you" over and over with each declaration.  That my grandmother thought I was the bee's knees is no secret.  She always bragged about me and my academic achievements, which she thought was direct proof that I was her grandson.  My smarts were from me and my dad, you see. That she held my mother in any kind of esteem was news to me.  That a pedestal was involved was downright shocking.  I held my tongue from spitting out, "SINCE WHEN?" or "She sure had a funny way of showing it."  Again, there's a ritual to Southern funerals, and I was certainly not going to cause a scene unless provoked.

The other "group" there for my grandmother was a family led some lady who reeked of smoke, had a cane, and wore an ill fitting polyester black suit.  I noticed she had cornered my mother at some point, so I made a beeline to step in and rescue her.  My mom immediately grabbed my hand behind her back and SQUEEZED as tight as she could.  I got the message, but I could not rescue her from the monologue that ensued.

The lady informed us that she had adopted my grandmother and had her over for birthdays and holidays.  When my mom said she'd heard a lot about them, the older daughter piped up, "Oh, I hope it wasn't too bad!" which indicated to me that they were quite familiar with my grandmother's acid tongue.  But they said she loved the children, and they enjoyed her company.  There was a slight indication of "we had her over because you wouldn't have anything to do with her", but it wasn't overt enough to react.  They talked about how much my grandmother liked to eat, especially when the meal was free.  The somewhat toothless husband of the matriarch (also with a cane) said that he'd promised my grandmother to go dancing when she got better.  I suppose that was supposed to be a heart warming story, but it left me cold.  This family also mentioned how my grandmother had my mom on a "pedestal" of some kind.  She also said how my grandmother had bragged about my mom's "degrees".  She said, "Oh, no, that was my son.  He's got two graduate degrees."  The lady looked confused and asked if my mom did not have a teaching degree, because my grandmother had mentioned several times that my mom had a teaching degree.  Umm, no, my mom worked in schools as a secretary, not a teacher.   Awkward silence ensued.  Finally, I got my mother away after the story telling had died down. 

At 1:30pm, the music my grandmother had selected was played.  The one cousin who can sing was not able to perform due to lack of preparation, which Frances beat herself up for not providing.  Mom and I just wanted to tell Frances to relax, but we  provided assurances that everything was fine.  And it WAS fine!

After my grandmother's selections were played, it was Frances' turn to speak.  She picked up a notebook and read out her eulogy of my grandmother.  WHAT a eulogy it was!  Mom and I had no idea where she going with it, only that Frances said the Lord had put something on her heart to say.  It was quite the soap opera moment, wondering what would be said about a woman who had been pretty nasty to just about everyone in the room.

Frances framed it around my grandmother's life story.  Recouting how she was born in Davidson County just outside Nashville, where my great-grandparents lived until 1930 when they bought the family farm in Joelton, TN.  She mentioned my grandmother's scholastic abilities, of which she was quite proud, and justifiably so, according to Frances.  She mentioned my grandmother's marriage to my grandfather, and then she got to the meat of the story.

She started talking about my grandmother's difficult personality.  The "sharp tongue" that she used on just about everyone.  She was respectful, but honest.  The crowd chuckled when Frances said, "Aunt Snookie wanted things how she wanted them, when she wanted them, and no other way. If you tried to do something different, she'd let you know."  She talked about how my grandmother was often difficult to love because of her sharp tongue, and sprinkled in a couple of bible verses about forebearance.  She said that even my grandmother couldn't drive anymore, she wanted you to cart her around on HER schedule according to HER wants at the moment....and she'd "let you know" if you didn't.    In other words, people helping her out of kindness were treated like servants or staff.

At this point, I was wondering how honest Frances would be, and I was wondering if the people here who only knew my grandmother and weren't family would interrupt to defend her.  This was before Frances started talking about the state of my grandmother's soul.

Frances talked about the bittnerness in my grandmother's heart toward her family that was evident in everything she said or did.  She talked about how worried she was about my grandmother's soul as she got sick.  She had very frank discussions with my grandmother about whether or not she was right with Jesus and whether she was sure she would go to heaven when she died.  She pushed my grandmother on the need to reconcile with my mother and make amends for all the things she'd said and done to her over the years...for the sake of her soul going to heaven rather than being confined to the fires of hell.  She expressed the worry she had for my grandmother's salvation.

About three weeks before her death, my mother did visit my grandmother in the hospice.  They did have a reconciliation of sorts, which was somewhat married by the poison pen letter that Frances found and gave to my mother.  However, my mom had made her peace with my grandmother, and vice versa.  Frances swore she was a changed woman after that, not expressing any of the bitterness or venom she had prior to my mother's final visit.  She wove in quite a few Bible verses about how to treat one another, and on the theme of salvation in Jesus.  I almost expect an invitation to the crowd to accept Jesus as personal savior, but the sermonizing was perfectly in tune with the eulogy.  Frances gave a textbook example of how to properly eulogize someone who was very difficult to love in real life, being honest about their faults, but presenting a message of hope and salvation at the end.  It was amazing in its honesty without being rude or disrespectful to the dead.

I think her eulogy was 5-6 pages handwritten, front and back.  When it was done, the song "It's Well with My Soul" came on, and Frances collapsed in tears.  The song went perfectly with her eulogy, and it all made sense.  I believe that God did put something on her soul that she was compelled to say, and the message was perfect.  I wish I had been able to get a transcript of her eulogy.

Mom and I were immediately following the coffin as it was ushered out of the funeral home and into the waiting hearse.  As the immediate kin, we had the car right behind the hearse as we made our way to New Hope Free Will Baptist Church.

Another nice gesture that is made in Southern funerals, especially those held in the countryside, is the tradition of traffic pulling over the side of the road until the funeral procession has passed.  In the city, you don't really see that, and it's not very practical.  But in Joelton, TN, every car we passed was pulled over to the side of the road until we passed.  It's a quiet marker of respect for the deceased and the family, and I loved seeing it. It really gives you a sense of being in a community where death means something.

We arrived at the church, and the weather was gorgeous.  It was sunny, slightly windy, not a cloud in the sky.  The church had expanded A LOT since the last time I was there for my grandfather's funeral in 1996.  The funeral director showed me and my mom the top of the vault where the engraved name and dates of birth/death where located on smooth marble.  The music notes looked better in person than they had in the book, and everyone was very pleased at how nice it was. 

Mom and I took our seats in the front row, joined by the lady who had "adopted" my grandmother.  The retired deacon of the church (who had buried my grandfather all those years ago) gave the graveside prayer.  The only sad part was when he talked about "my favorite verse of scripture and yours too..." followed by silence.  Silence that lasted nearly a minute as he forgot and tried to remember this verse of scripture that was his favorite:  John 3:16. 

But he did remember, and the vault was sealed and lowered into the ground.  My mom tried to get away because she did NOT want to see the dirt being poured on the grave.  It's a thing with her.  She finds the dirt falling on the coffin to be suffocating, creepy, etc.  But the old landlady grabbed her for a few words and she simply had to avert her eyes, despite telling the lady she couldn't stand to see the dirt cover the vault with the coffin. 

This woman repeated the story my grandmother had told about my mom having some kind of teaching degree.  She also said that my mother needed to dye her hair red in honor of my grandmother.  Yeah, I had a WTF moment there myself.  Then the "adopted" family came up and was sharing with my mother yet again too.  Poor woman could not escape!

I figured the only thing to do was to find my grandfather's grave.  Turned out he was about 15 feet away from my grandmother's resting place.  Considering how much they DESPISED each other, the irony of their burial placement was pretty rich.   Finally, they friends of my grandmother let her go, and another random person came up, saying, "I bet you don't know who I am."

That person turned out to be a Milliken cousin!  This lady was the daughter of my grandfather's older brother!  I don't think I'd ever met any of the Milliken cousins, who are also buried all around the New Hope Free Will Baptist cemetery along with the Feltses.  Anyway, after some visiting, mom was able to visit her dad's grave for a few minutes. 

Frances had a few items of business to discuss with my mom about the estate (such as it is).  Mostly about going through my grandmother's things, and how she'd been the victim of some kind of scam before she was hospitalized in July.  It was very dramatic, but if my grandma's chotchkies were stolen, so be it.  They were pretty much worthless anyway.  Frances had my mom take the dove from the wheel that was now laying on the filled grave.  Mom took a couple of flowers from our spray, which was also lying on the grave.  A couple of cousins who lingered stayed to give their condolences one more time and exact promises that my mom would visit and not be a stranger.

Finally, we got in my grandparents' new SUV and came back to the hotel to collapse in a nap.  I didn't do much all day but sit or stand around, but the funeral had exhausted us both.  It struck me that the ritual was necessary in a Southern family like mine, even when the deceased was someone who had alienated us all.  But then again, funerals are not for the dead...they are for the living.

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