Monday, June 4, 2012

Death and Potluck

My life-long friend, Michael, did a double take at my reference, the other day, to having attended a funeral/potluck. Since he grew up at the foot of the mountain and I grew up at the top, with our budding lives located not more than a couple of miles from one another, as the buzzard flies, I would have thought he’d be the last person amazed by the conjunction of the two events. It demonstrated to me how insular our little community on the mountain is. We have our ways. Our customs. Even the slow gentrification of the neighborhood and in some cases, of ourselves, has not altered some fundamental Big Hill traditions, one of which is the funeral/potluck.

If you’ve read Commune of Women, you may recall Pearl’s remembrance of her childhood friend’s death in the mill yard. That segment is based on the death of my own first friend, who did die at the sawmill that’s just a mile from my home. My father made her coffin and my mother made her a little yellow organdy dress, one I’m sure originally was meant for me. My mother and the ditch tender’s wife, Alice, dressed my friend and laid her out. The funeral took place in her parents’ home and I can still remember my surprise at how small the coffin was, sitting there on the front room table. It was my first funeral. I was 5.

That family has their own state-licensed cemetery. For 60 years, now, I’ve been traipsing through the long grass, along with a crowd of my neighbors, up the hill toward the grove of oaks that overarches four generations of graves. Our cars line the narrow county road. The women carry cake plates and salad bowls and platters of deviled eggs, of which we are relieved by younger members of the family, who ferry them off to long tables set up in the shade. The men carry shovels.

Some folding chairs are set up in front of the little brown brick chapel, to accommodate the older folks, among whom, for the first time, I found myself at the latest ceremony. Everyone else gathers around. All generations are present, from the oldest, in their 90s, to babes in arms and well-scrubbed and beautifully dressed children, some of whom will serenade us with songs and guitar music. The family reverend says simple and heartfelt things about the departed. We pray. We sing old hymns, the favorites being “In the Garden” and “Amazing Grace.” We sit with our arms around one another, for comfort. We sing from our hearts.

The men, family and friends, carry the homemade coffin down the slope from the chapel to the grave. They stagger a bit because of the uneven ground; because some of them are old but still strong in a sense of communal service; because the coffin is made from boards from the mill and generally outweighs the collective bulk of the pallbearers.

There is no fake green grass hiding the heap of red soil next to the grave. There is no lowering devise straddling the grave’s maw. Two hemp ropes are laid across the opening. Two stout 4 X 4 posts lie along its length. The coffin is set on the posts. The men take up the ropes. At a nod, the coffin is lifted, the posts are withdrawn, and the coffin is laid onto the ropes. Slowly, it disappears into the soil of this mountain, as the men pay out the ropes. A final prayer is said. Traditionally, the chief mourner throws in the first handful of dirt. Then the men all grab the shovels they’ve brought, and they bury the dead.

There is nothing to shield one from the finality. All the trappings supplied by the  modern funeral industry are absent, even elaborate floral offerings. In the early days, they were too expensive and it was unspoken that they were a waste of money that could be better spent. Now, after so many decades, it’s recognized that there is no need. The departed ones are honored in timeless ways far more profound.

Slowly, as the men labor over the mound of dirt, people drift toward the food tables, or stand chatting in the shade of the oaks. We catch up with one another. We greet new babies, hug old neighbors we haven’t seen since the last funeral, share our stories of the departed ones. Old animosities are laid to rest along with the departed, at least for the day. Plates are heaped. Recipes are passed and plants thinned from gardens promised to one another.

 Against all odds of alienation, age and indifference, our little Big Hill community reaffirms itself. We found ourselves, one more time, in eternal verities of communal aid and caring, in the affirmation of life after life, in the honor of lives well-lived close to the earth and through honest labor.  My own parents were buried in this fashion. The men of this mountain dug the graves, lowered the coffins that David built, and shoveled the dirt in over them. It’s an honorable way to leave this plane, attended by caring people who lay aside their own concerns for a day to bring what they have: their food, their shovels and their love.

No comments: