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Bring out your dead... or don’t

By Angela Reinhardt

Staff writer

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My husband just wrapped-up a production of Greater Tuna, an affectionate but satirical play that comments on small-town Southern life. In one funeral scene, two characters look over the dead body of a beloved judge.   

“Well don’t you think he looks nice?” Pearl asks. “I think he makes a lovely looking corpse, don’t you?”

After some contemplation and close examination of the body, Vera throws a wrench into unspoken Southern funeral etiquette.   

“One dead body just looks like another,” Vera says. “They look dead. And still.” (dramatic pause) “And waxy.”  

Anyone who has been to a funeral in a Southern town has heard – or has said themselves - things like, “He looks so natural, doesn’t he? So peaceful.” Or “Didn’t they do her makeup well? It looks just like her.”

With Halloween a few days away, death and the way we deal with the dead seemed an appropriately macabre topic. There’s no doubt we’ve been creative over the eons, engaging in everything from mummification, to Tibetan sky burials, cryonization, cremation, Viking ship burials, tree burials, Towers of Silence (Zoroastrians see the dead as unclean, and expose them to the elements until bodies are cleaned, then they put the bones in lye to dissolve), and the latest development in taking care of or disposing of a body – liquefaction.     

My husband and I were talking about the intriguing tendency to comment on the appearance of a corpse in the South, where no one dies but everyone “passes away,” and our conversation shifted to caskets and burial vaults. We reminisced about a family friend who was a grave digger, and who also (poetically) built and sold pine caskets, one of which he was buried in when he “passed.” My husband, who also wants to be buried in a pine box because burial vaults “rob you of returning to the earth” through decomposition, had a professor who blamed widespread use of burial vaults on lobbyists. Apparently in Georgia vaults are not required by law, but most cemeteries do require them for “perpetual maintenance of grounds.” People can be buried on their own land with a permit in whatever kind of casket or box they please, and can “go green” and not use a casket at all. Family of the deceased also don’t have to buy caskets from a funeral home, and the funeral homes have to use whatever casket you want.   

The thing I like so much about Southerners and their relationship with death is there is a kind of humor and closeness with it that was clearly seen in a Southern Living interview with etiquette experts and authors of Being Dead Is No Excuse, a ladies’ guide to hosting the perfect Southern funeral. The authors highlight a few staples of a Southern funeral – we like big funerals and love to attend them. The authors take issue with long obituaries, eulogies (“where people talk about how loyal the fanny pincher was”), paper products at receptions, and themed weddings that include things like camouflage coffins or carrying uncle John to the graveyard in a pickup truck. There’s also a definitive funeral reception cuisine, they say, where stuffed eggs and green bean casserole are okay, but ribs are absolutely not.

“Nobody dies better than a Southerner.”     

My husband likes to joke that when his father died it was during a brief period in his life that he had a mustache. The scene is hilarious. There he lay, in his casket, with a mustache that looked awkward and out of place. When I worked at a photo lab in high school I processed several rolls of deceased people in their casket. It’s interesting that outside of the U.S. open casket funerals are apparently a horrifying and unusual prospect.

Some of our traditions are dying out, like sitting up with the dead, but with the plethora of new and old traditions still going strong, death has options - we can go out open-casket style or be picked apart by birds in the Tibetan Sky Burial. 

We’re all going to die in this body, but there’s some comfort knowing none of us have the “right” way to go out figured out.