Monday, March 12, 2007

Grandmother's Send Off

We had my grandmother's funeral today. She was a cool grandmother who'd lived a long life. A couple of weeks ago she decided she was tired of being here.

So she died.

And that's ok.

My mother and uncle chose to have a graveside service. Early in the morning we gathered around the open grave, huddled together in the rain and mist, singing Amazing Grace a capella.

That's my idea of a good funeral. It was a scene to make Edward Gorey proud.

I learned a couple of things from this particular funeral experience. The first thing I've come to accept is that I have become a social hugger. I'm not proud of that fact, but that makes it no less true.

I am not a touchy-feely person. Its just not my thing.

But this is the the south, and I'm a woman and certain things are just expected. Over the years I've given up on trying to avoid the contact while avoiding hurting someone's feelings. Now I tend to initiate it to try and get it over with. Especially at funerals.

Sunday afternoon we had a big ol' hug-fest at the funeral home, while the family received visitors. I thought I was prepared. I had my fake huggy-smile all cued up and ready to go. While this was certainly a somber occasion, it was not unexpected and not at all angst-filled or wretched. Unfortunately, the first person to see me when I came in the door was Aunt Louise.

Now, y'all all have an Aunt Louise. I know you do. Aunt Louise has a penchant for TV preachers and Eva Gabor wigs. She's as tall as I am and pretty thin and spry. And she is a hugger deee-lux.

I saw her coming and was ready to go with a quick, mid-stride side hug. Its a good opening gambit and a way to breeze through the feely formalities while not lingering with someone who tends to count the hooks in your bra.

I seriously underestimated Aunt Louise. She was in full tragedy mode.

She snuck in under my outstretched arm and grabbed me by the armpits, throwing me into her chest. I had to break stride to keep from falling on top of her. She bear hugged me so hard I gasped out loud and the reflexive inhale caused me to choke on my cough drop. She interpreted my subdued gagging as proof of my emotional upheaval and she hung on for dear life.

I managed to catch my breath and gave her a friendly end-of-hug pat on the back. Then I stepped back.

She stepped with me as if we'd been doing the tango together for years. She was saying something about how tragic all of this was and how she knew I'd miss my grandmother and whatever would we do without her beatific presence in our sordid lives.

I knew it wasn't worth it to explain that although I will certainly miss the person my grandmother was, she was ready to go and the greater tragedy by far would have been for her to have been confined to a bed in a nursing home for any length of time. I just smiled and nodded.

Of course she couldn't see me smile because her chin was still digging into my shoulder and her wig was getting in my teeth.

She finally released the bear hug, but clung to my arm and directed me around the room to the rest of the mourners. Thankfully, most of them were satisfied with a handshake.

I may have to rethink my social hugger strategy. Maybe it would be easier if I contracted leprosy.

Now, that is not really the story I intended to tell you.

I really wanted to tell you about English Pea Salad.

My family and I have always been connoisseurs of funeral food. In small towns out here, the preacher is always expected to eat with the family when there is a funeral meal. And there is always a funeral meal. In the small towns I grew up in, the population was aging rapidly and it was not at all uncommon for us to have two and three funerals a week. The only way my brother and I got lunch was by partaking with the mourners, too.

There are some certainties to southern funeral food. There are only three dignified meat choices: Fried Chicken, Ham and Roast. BBQ is fine for a wedding or a revival meeting or at a booster club fundraiser before the football game, but its generally considered bad form at a funeral meal. All funerals have at least two of those meat choices and any really good send-off will have all three.

There is always one lady in the church who is unofficially designated to bring deviled eggs. She is generally the one who received one of those deviled egg platters as a wedding gift back in '52.

There will be a prodigious amount of mashed potatoes, yet this will always be the first dish to run out.

Hot rolls reign supreme. Some of the more hoity-toity churches have women who will make them from scratch. The down-home congregations use brown-n-serve.

Then there are the side dishes. There are two side dishes that are present at each and every memorial meal. English Pea Salad and Carrot and Raisin Salad. Evidently, no one but a godless communist would consent to be buried without their family partaking of these death salads. They are an ever-present harbinger of loss, feeder of grief, and satiate to those who remain.

I've been espousing the merits and short-comings of funeral food for years. My friends have smiling put up with my exhaustive diatribes on the subject. I even like to go through the line at Furr's cafeteria and tell the server I want some 'funeral salad' to see which one they pick.

At Grandmother's funeral, I was reminded that I have some really good friends. C. Wright lives way out on the other side of the state. When she heard that my grandmother died, she immediately contacted DW, another good friend who put up with me as her office jester for the four years while I was in college.

I didn't see DW until we were about to eat. She snuck up beside me with a big grin on her face.

"C.Wright told me your grandmother died. We got together and made sure you had enough salads."

Sure enough, when it was my turn to wind my way down the pot-luck table, I saw their two dishes sitting side by side - Carrot and Raisin Salad and English Pea Salad.

We got our burying done right.


Miss Kitty said...

Sorry to hear about your grandmother. You and your family are in my thoughts & prayers.

Thanks for this piece on Southern funeral traditions--I laughed out loud at several places, especially the part about your aunt's full-contact hugging, and the food choices. I'd never thought about BBQ being bad form at a funeral meal, but it's true. It's somehow tacky to serve BBQ before a funeral. But I too have seen plenty of fried chicken, ham, and beef roasts.

And it's not only the potatoes that run out first...but those awesome yeast rolls. WHY?

Princess of Everything (and then some) said...

If you drop bar-b-q on your shirt it makes a big stain BEFORE the service. are in true form with this one.

esperanza said...

You are so right on the BBQ, though I've never picked up on that. And are you using the word "salad" to refer to that disgusting canned pea and mayonnaise mixture? That cannot be considered actual food. The carrot and raisin thing is ok.

When my grandfather died, we got ham and broccoli. And more broccoli. And then some more broccoli. We HATED broccoli. I have no idea who actually ate it.

SpookyRach said...

I whole-heartedly agree, Esperanza. The pea thing is disgusting, but I kinda like the carrot and raisin bit.

cheesehead said...

This is so true. There are some geographic differences with the food, but the food is just as important. Here the pickle/relish/olive tray reigns supreme. No mashed potatoes, but plenty of tater salad.

(Even if you don't like it; I don't wear a wig, so it won't get in your teeth.)

Quotidian Grace said...

You'd make a great social anthropologist--or modern-day Jane Austen.

God bless your grandmother. As one of my elderly friends has so sagely told me before, "there are a lot worse things than dying." Being confined to a bed in a nursing home in a failing body is certainly one of them.

Miss Rachel said...

Sorry about your grandmother, but this is a very amusing post. I have never heard of "funeral salads" but my James Beard's American Cookery book says Raisin Pie is known as Funeral Pie in some parts of the United States. I'm guessing that those parts are most likely in the South...

NoMas said...

Came across your blog while blog surfing about a month ago. Finally, I will stop lurking and leave a comment! Love your blog; especially the Friday cemetery posts. Right now, I am surfing and watching an old movie with Bob Hope and Lucille Ball. Surely your grandmother is having a good time with them in the great beyond. Funeral food in the South? Hmm, don’t forget the iced tea, macaroni and cheese, and of course pee-can pie! J Sounds like a wonderful send off! (And I hate the hugging junk, too).

SpookyRach said...

Welcome nomas! You have evidently eaten at a lot of the same funerals as me. Only one thing I would change - in Texas its puh-cahn pie. We leave the pee-cans to the Georgians. ha ha!

Miss Rachel - I've never had raisin pie, but I bet you're right. It sounds like a southern dish. Poor folks food.

QG - I've always liked Jane Austen. (Hate those Bronte women, though) Thanks for the compliment!

reverendmother said...

This is a work of art.

Patti said...

I'm sorry for your loss. I think of and miss my grandma often. I really enjoyed and learned from your reflections.

And my Aunt Louise was called Aunt June. She wouldn't let go, either; and she also pinched our cheeks. Hard. Mine hurt just thinking about it.

Funeral food here is way different. I can't imagine a funeral without at least 3 kinds of jello salad. And casseroles from neighbors. And cold cuts. And chocolate sheet cake.

Patti said...

And we always eat AFTER the service.

annie said...

I think your grandmother would have been proud.

You are so right about the barbecue not being a proper funeral food! And I never thought of that till you pointed it out.

Great post!

Mile High Pixie said...

Oh, Spooky, so sorry to hear about your grandmaw. I bet she knew she was loved, with such a hilarious and talented writer of a granddaughter as you. I had a family friend hug me like that at my Dad's funeral, but she was so heavyset that her spine was a deep dent in her back that I nearly said "God bless you both" when I hugged her.

Now that you mention it...since I want to be cremated, I think I *will* have BBQ at my funeral.

SpookyRach said...

"God bless you both"


Trace said...

Oh Spooky, how I love you!! What a great post; expressing many of our southern, back home, gotta' get to the funeral experiences.

This is also a wonderful tribute to your loving grandmother. A nice send-off story indeed. It is most wonderful to know there are others who believe in celebrating the lives of our loved ones who are tired and want to move on. God speed Gran!

Cynthia said...

I am so happy about your Grandmother's long life and the love you all apparently had for her. Everything about funerals from your post resonates with me. I agree about the BBQ. It is too celebratory for a funeral for most people's sense of propriety.
When my stepfather died in Tennessee, the people of my mom's church had the after-service meal at the church in the fellowship hall. It was catered by those women of the church who also brought food to the house. We just came and ate and relaxed and visited with the folks and then were able to leave them behind when it was time for us to go unwind. Highly civilized, I think.

zorra said...

Rach, you forgot to mention the pies. Lemon and chocolate icebox, always, and pecan too. At least in Mississippi.

I am sorry about your grandmother. It seems the only time all the cousins, etc. can get together is at a funeral. I really miss the type of food-oriented events you're talking's what I grew up with, of course, and here in transient suburbia it is lacking. It's nice to have a meal provided at the church, but that just isn't the same as those two- or three-day affairs where you sit around the house with your relatives and closest friends, eating all the wonderful things the neighbors and church ladies brought, eating, crying, laughing, eating, talking, eating some more.

amy said...

I'm delurking to tell you I am sorry for your loss, and I LOVED this post!

Whenever anyone in my family dies, there's always ham, chicken casserole, fried chicken, and corn casserole. Of course deviled eggs and pie and rolls as well. And you're right about BBQ. It's just tacky to have BBQ at a funeral.

My aunt Louise was Aunt Doris Lee. And she was a cheek-pincher. Like the poster above, my cheeks still hurt just thinking about it.

little david said...

Rachel, thanks for this wonderful post. Jonboy didn't really say a whole lot about the funeral (ermm, actually nothing at all) so I am delighted to have your take on it. So when are you going to write the book? You know that you have it in you.

I would have to agree with Patty about the jello salads, especially that green opaque one with pecans and other lumps (marshmallow bits?) in it.

St. Inuksuk said...

(((O))) Sorry to hear about your grandmother. Peace be with you and your whole family, Aunt Louisa, included!!!
I, ,too, have had to eat at the funeral luncheons of my parishioners. I do, however, look forward to M's marinated carrots. Yummmmm. I'll take those over jello salads any day!

Cowtown Pattie said...


Many condolences for the loss of your grandmother. Our loved one never really "die" do they? They live on and on in family lore.

Ah, yes, the southern funeral. You forgot the one other salad that is almost always in attendance - the green jello with cottage cheese and marshmellows.