Death in the South

DeathintheSouth
Mrs. Gump: “I’m dying, Forrest. Come on in, sit down over here.”
Forrest Gump: “Why are you dying, Mama?”
Mrs. Gump: “It’s my time. It’s just my time. Oh now… don’t you be afraid, sweetheart. Death is just a part of life.”
—From Forrest Gump 1994

I rose early that day faced with the long, four-hour drive down to my stepfather’s home in Southeast Georgia. I suppressed my many melancholy feelings by singing along to the radio and focusing my attention on each milestone along my journey—Atlanta’s downtown connector, Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, the large outlet mall in Locust Grove, Rose Hill Cemetery along the banks of the muddy Ocmulgee, and the point where the brown dirt on the sides of I-16 transitions to the white sand hills abundant in the lowland areas of Georgia.

“Which shoes should I wear?” Mom asked just moments after I arrived. She had hung her funeral attire on the door of the spare bedroom with two pairs of black pumps parked underneath.

“I don’t know. Maybe those,” I said pointing to one pair.

She agreed with my decision and dressed as I washed down a pack of cheese crackers with an ice-cold Coke. A half hour later, I was behind the wheel again, but this time, I chauffeured two others—Mom in the backseat and my stepfather in the front.

Freshly plowed dirt roads. Live oaks draped with cascading Spanish moss. Weathered clapboard houses. Barns strangled by tangles of kudzu. Saw palmetto. Towering longleaf pines.

The three of us arrived at the funeral home in Richmond Hill and entered the building. Dozens of relatives—some I had not seen in over a decade—ambushed us. We mingled, hugged, waved, dried tears and pressed our way through a sea of grieving people to the open casket. My cousin, Yancey, dressed in a navy blue fisherman’s shirt, lay peacefully before us as if he were taking a nap.
I stood next to my cousin’s body and spoke to him with my thoughts.

I hate seeing you like this. I’ll miss your wit—we all will.

I had not seen Yancey in a while, although he and I shared conversations and photographs via Facebook. He was my Aunt Joyce’s youngest child—her baby boy, even at forty-seven years old. His rotund body seemed a perfect match for his larger-than-life personality, but his heart and his lungs couldn’t support the surplus weight. Health problems plagued him in the end. His death was somewhat expected, but still, when my sister called and told me he had died, I was simply shocked. I gasped. News of death has that effect on me every time.

I hate saying goodbyes, and I’ve said a lot of goodbyes in my lifetime.

My Papa Lanier died of emphysema when I was seven, and I remember the weight of his death on my family and the pained, primitive yowls of my grandmother and my Aunt Colleen in the days that followed. They seemed inconsolable.

As a child, I also attended funerals for Uncle Lee Roy, Uncle Louis, and many other relatives, and each time, Mom would escort me up to the body and say, “You might want to look, Honey. It will be the last time you get to see him.”

I didn’t want to look, but I did. I saw death laid out before me—the lifeless, empty shells of people from my life. I witnessed the anguish of the survivors who occupied the front pews of the churches. I smelled the overpowering aroma of Chrysanthemums arranged in baskets and stuck in large, flashy sprays. I listened to the comforting messages of preachers guiding my imagination to images of winged souls flying up to Heaven. Unfortunately, I heard the other kind of sermons, too—the hellfire and damnation kind designed to terrify a congregation, wounded and weakened from loss.

“If you want to see him again, you must repent your sins and accept Jesus as your Savior today,” some preachers howled while standing over the casket. “Only then can you be reunited with your loved ones in Heaven. Come to the front of the church now and reaffirm your faith. There may not be a tomorrow.”

Friends and family members streamed forward. No one wanted to be left behind. No one wanted to spend eternity in Hell. No one.

Even as a little girl, I found the fire-and-brimstone sermons of some funerals distasteful. To me, the words “today could be your last chance for salvation,” sounded a lot like a used car salesman’s cheesy pitch—“What do I have to do to get you in this car today? It may not be here tomorrow. Better go ahead and buy it now.”

My grandmother Lanier died in 1990. My father wept for her.

My daddy joined Grandmother and Papa on the other side in 1992, and I cried for him and my mother who became a widow at fifty-five. We buried him in denim jeans and a flannel shirt because that’s what he was most comfortable wearing. My father was a Mason, and so a band of Masonic brethren wearing white gloves and ceremonial aprons surrounded his body at the graveside. One man wore a hat and spoke directly to us.

“Our Brother has reached the end of his earthly toils. The brittle thread which bound him to earth has been severed and the liberated spirit has winged its flight to the unknown world. The dust has returned to the earth as it was, and the spirit has returned to God who gave it.”

The service brimmed with poetic phrasing and symbolism—my kind of sermon. At one point, the man with the hat placed a sprig of cedar on my father’s casket.

“This evergreen is an emblem of our enduring faith in the Immortality of the Soul. By it we are reminded that we have an imperishable part within us, which shall survive all earthly existence, and which will never, never die. Through the loving goodness of our Supreme Grand Master, we may confidently hope that, like this Evergreen, our souls will hereafter flourish in eternal spring.”

I loved the thought of my father existing in eternal springtime somewhere.

We buried my father that afternoon then went to a family member’s house and ate. Women of the family and community had prepared a generous spread of fried chicken, chicken and dumplings, potato salad, cornbread, sweet tea, chocolate cake and other delicacies. Taking food to a grieving family is the epitome of Southern grace, like saying, “I’m sorry for your loss. I care. And don’t ever forget—you are loved by so many.”

After we picked at our food and rested for a while, my family caravanned back to the cemetery and stood beside the mounded dirt and flower arrangements for a few minutes. Mom reached down and plucked a limp rose from the spray that covered Daddy’s grave—a keepsake she eventually dried and pressed between the pages of a Bible. We each selected a potted peace lily to take home.
I found it difficult to turn and leave my father there that day. I believed that his soul had moved on, yet I had a strong connection with the vessel that contained his being. I lingered at his graveside delaying the inevitable.

With its granite and marble obelisks and monuments, the cemetery looked a bit like an outdoor art garden. There was a strange beauty to the setting, although it was a barren land flush with death and sadness. Some of the plots were well taken care of, while others seemed forgotten—faded plastic flowers leaning to and fro and weeds invading the marble rocks.

I continued to stall by wading through the sea of headstones and reading the names, dates, and verses engraved on the surfaces. Finally, my husband grabbed my hand and led me away.

Since that day, I’ve lost others—my beloved Grandmother Jarriel, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends. I’ve watched my husband’s parents deteriorate mentally and physically and fade away, too. They were both cremated—their ashes scattered together underneath a tree in a forest near Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

I’ve lost pets, and I’ve mourned for them, too—sometimes more than I’ve mourned for people who’ve passed away.

But back to my cousin’s funeral.

Yancey’s niece, Ashley, stood up in front of all of us and shared some lovely memories. I admired her courage and composure and wondered if I could push my pain aside for ten minutes and speak about a loved one at a funeral service. I’m not sure.

After my cousin’s burial, I gathered my passengers and drove off into the blazing sunset while Mom, my stepfather, and Aunt Gloria recapped the events of the preceding days. They talked about how good this person looked and how bad that person looked. They talked about who brought food and how delicious so-and-so’s cake was. They talked about relatives that didn’t attend the funeral or burial service and speculated as to why they didn’t show up. They talked about Yancey, and what a beautiful little boy he had been so many years ago. They talked about my Aunt Joyce and wondered aloud about her future. They talked about life, and they talked about death—sometimes in the same breath.

I’ve reached an age where my parents and my remaining aunts and uncles are all surpassing the average life expectancy. Friends and contemporaries are fighting and losing battles with cancer and other debilitating illnesses. I find myself thinking about mortality more and more these days. I brace—not for my own decline and death, but for the eminent loss of the lights around me who brighten my world.

My mother has always talked candidly about death, dying, and the afterlife. A few years ago, she called and told me matter-of-factly to prepare for a whole slew of deaths in our family.

“There’s no easy way to say it, so I’m just going to come right out with it,” she said. “We have so many in our family who are either really sick or really old, so be prepared. When they start dying, they’ll drop like flies.”

Mom suggested I keep at least two appropriate funeral dresses in my closet at all times and urged me to make sure my husband’s suit still fit him, which I did. She also said, “You might want to plan and visit with some of your family that you haven’t seen in a few years. You never know—you may not get another opportunity to spend time with them.”

Her words made me sad, but her warning proved to be prophetic. Mom’s always on the mark.

As far as her own death, Mom talks about that, too, even though she has the health and stamina of a woman half her age. For the last several years, she regularly sends me a spreadsheet that itemizes all of her bank accounts and personal business. She’s given me a copy of her will and a key to her safe deposit box. I know exactly where she wants to be buried—beside my father’s body at the cemetery east of Collins, Georgia.

Her main concern is my stepfather, Johnny.

“If I go first, please be there for him,” she has pleaded with me. “He’s going to need a lot of love and care. I know you will help him in every way that you can.”

And I will.

Yes, I’ve seen death, and I understand both its finality and its truth. Like Forrest Gump’s mother said, “Death is just a part of life.” It reminds us of what’s important—that we are only here for a finite number of days, that we should live each day as if it is our last, that we should love one another, that we should show compassion and forgiveness to others, and most of all, that we should never take one moment for granted.

Freelance writer Amber Lanier Nagle has written nonfiction articles for Georgia Magazine, Grit, Mother Earth News, Points North and dozens of other magazines. Her book, Project Keepsake (www.ProjectKeepsake), is a collection of nonfiction stories about keepsakes. She facilitates workshops for writers of all skill levels on topics such as freelance writing, writing family stories, and writing creative nonfiction pieces.

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