I was sitting here at the computer on Friday morning, and out of my window I could see a funeral procession go by. I, of course, stopped what I was doing to watch; not in a gory sort of way, but out of respect for the dead. I also noticed several cars on the opposite side of the road pull over, stop, and wait for the procession to pass.
It reminded me of a reason why I love the south, which is for our funerary ways. It is not an uncommon site, where ever I go, in the lower south, to see cars pull over to pay their respects for a funeral procession. It’s not even out of the ordinary in front of my house, as my street is now a rather busy thoroughfare.
When I am out on the roads, this is something that I do as well. I was taught from a very early age to pull over, turn on your headlights, and to have a moment of calm reflect for the dead. However, if my music is good, like jazz, the blues, something from the sixties, I’ll leave it on for them because I figure it is also a good way to pay ones respects.
No one in the south is ever really a stranger from death. Sure there are people who are afraid of it, but more often than not, people embrace it here. We visit random graveyards to remember fallen veterans, clean up graves, for family genealogical purposes, to just look at really old head stones and read the inscriptions, view unique cemetery structures, or to simply be inside of a graveyard… and these aren’t even for loved one’s that we knew! Of course, not everyone does this, and there are non-southerners and non-North Americans who participate in some of these things as well, but this is something that is in a lot of southerners souls.
From before I was in my mother’s womb, my family has been visiting graveyards. My parents would go and hang out in the local one that has a duck pond, simply to sit and be by the water and watch or feed the ducks and the fish. This is something they did with The Sister before I was born as well as with me after I was born. Every family trip, there was time spent in an unknown cemetery, if we happened to hear-tell of one or pass it by, simply to read inscriptions and see headstone carvings and such.
In my younger years I set out alone, and with friends, to photograph and document all of the cemeteries in my area. I spent several years immersing myself into any and every cemetery that I ran across. This is also where all of my personal photo’s from this post come from. I have found all sorts of interesting old graves, from one’s that simply say Stillborn Girl, to War of 1812 Veteran, to born in Germany, China, France, etc.; to intricately carved headstones, one’s with long epitaphs, or one’s worn over by time and neglect.
I also read a book during that same time, in my early twenties, all about cemeteries. There was this older gentleman who had been interviewed for the book. He was really over the moon about the Woodmen of the World Society and the ornate headstones that deceased members would end up with. That’s all his subject was about, because they were so rare and he’d hardly ever found any. I remember thinking that I had seen a lot of those in my documenting.
When I found the photo’s for them, I searched for him online. When I came across contact information for him, I emailed him and told them that there were loads of those headstones here and sent him some of my photos, and explained that it would make sense for this area since this was a huge lumber industry once. He did respond back. He was thrilled to see so many, and of really great designs. He also stated that he didn’t even realize that he was in a book, which I still find oddly amusing.
My maternal grandmother had a guidebook about Mississippi, by Mississippians for non-native Mississippians, that was published back in the 1930s. It’s a rather extensive, hard-bound book with an unbelievable amount of information, though I’m sure most of which is outdated because things to see probably fell into disuse or something. I always remember that there was an entire section which was dedicated to cemeteries and the one that jumped out the most, were the little houses. When someone died in this particular area which is on the border with Louisiana to the south, the relatives would build a little house over it. Picket fence walls and a wooden roof which I found out later, and not from the book, that it was to keep the wildlife from digging into the graves. But it always seemed so nice and magical.
This practice of course pre-dates the American Colonies, and was something practiced in the old world, and this tradition is spread all over the south. From Cement mausoleum housing for single and family graves, to iron fence work complete with gate to border in a single or family grave, to the structure shown above and even a simple four-post with roof home that is prevalent in parts of southern Louisiana.
The tradition of Momento Mori is still practiced across the south. If you have seen the film, The Others, then you are probably familiar with this term. The book that Nicole Kidmans’ character finds in the attic, she is told that the photo’s are Momento Mori, or photography of the dead. This was a huge practice after photography became readily available after The Civil War. Since most people didn’t have family portraits taken or painted, when someone died, then that was, apparently, then the time to do it. Some will have only the deceased in the photo, while others will have one or more members of the still-living family gathered around, like in the above photo.
There is even a Momento Mori painting hanging in Melrose Plantation in Natchez. The Sister and I were the only two people, besides our tour guide, who knew that it wasn’t a bust portrait of a child sleeping. When a friend of mine’s grandfather passed away a few years ago, he took a few photo’s of him in his coffin and put them up on his Facebook page. I was even asked by family friends to take photographs at their fathers funeral, because they are also still practitioner’s of Momento Mori.
Now not everyone in the south practices Momento Mori nor do they even realize that it is a thing. My friends Facebook post had quite a few southerners telling him that he was a sicko or wrong for it. Most of the all-southern mourners in attendance at our family friends funeral were giving me dirty looks and talking rudely about me or trying to harass me because how dare someone have a camera at a funeral. So that the grieving family didn’t have to deal with these mourners and so I could finish my task in piece, The Sister would state, “The family asked her to do this.”, and while they found it weird, they left us and the family alone about it.
It was never, and is still not, about mocking the dead or turning the entire affair into a side-show. It has always been about love and loss. Some people still do it because that’s just what their family has been doing for so long. Others actively want to have pictures of their dead loved ones as part of a memory. It is not something that my family does, nor to my knowledge ever did, but I can get on board with it and gladly accepted to help our family friends out when they asked, and of course never chide someone who wishes to have something like this as a momento.
My maternal great grandparents, whom I never met, were morticians. If you’ve read previous posts of mine, then you’ll know that my mother was adopted by Yankees who had moved to the south. The people I’m referring to here are her blood relatives. For them, this wasn’t the type of thing where they were an established service, living in a grand home and being extremely professional about it. They lived during the very early part of the twentieth century in a very rural community between the Mississippi Gulf Coast and the Alabama border. The community needed this service, and they were the people who took up the post, because it’s a thing that needs doing and it needs people to see it done. This was also not their job, as they were farmers; this was simply a case by case volunteer service they provide.
There was no embalming and no showroom full of fancy coffins, as these were not something that my great grandparents, nor the community could afford. No, they simply would care for the body, wash and prepare it for burial and made sure that someone else made a pine box coffin for the deceased or that one was procured from somewhere. They were also in charge of the wake, and staying with the body during the days or nights when family members of the deceased weren’t able to, and were in charge of helping to find a place in the cemetery to have them buried.
I have been to so many cemeteries, it honestly is ridiculous, but it has given me a chance to see general themes that transverse regions and also the unique difference. Many cemeteries in the swampy regions or along coastal wetlands, such as New Orleans and the surrounding areas as well as the Mississippi Gulf Coast, will have graves enclosed in brick or cement above ground. This is because there is so much water already in the ground, that when it rains the bodies would simply just pop up out of the ground. Which is how they later learned to utilize the above ground burial technique. This is, of course, a technique found in other parts of the world as well, but generally not in other regions of the US. This is also different that simply a few random mausoleums housing the remains of wealthy people in other cemeteries. This is something that is done for everyone who dies in these areas.
In larger, city cemeteries different groups of people get their own places. Generally the Native Americans, the blacks, the Catholic or the Irish, along with unbaptized babies or babies born out-of-wedlock, the insane, or the destitute would be buried in the far back corners; out of sight out of mind. Sometimes being originally buried beyond the original border of the cemetery, outside, on unconsecrated ground; though since then, the cemetery might have acquired that land for use, and perhaps had the area consecrated.. This of course was never because the families of these people wanted it that way. Other times, however, groups were separated, but in consecrated ground, within the cemetery proper. It just depended on that particular city, during that time in history, and the groups involved.
The Jewish people would either have their own plot somewhere inside the cemetery proper, or their own plot next to the graveyard. Their land consecrated in their own ways, but separated from the Gentiles. I think mostly because the Gentiles wanted them to be separate, but also in a way, that the Jewish people wanted to also be separate. If family members are still living, one will see small pebble rocks, or tz’ror, on or near the headstone, or Matzeivah. This is the same as non-Jewish people leaving flowers for their dead. Only in this way, it’s something that never dies, and the more pebbles or rocks that someone’s grave has, you know they are still being visited and cared for and how much they are loved. So, never remove stones from graves, as it is the same as removing flowers.
I have also been in a newer (started in the twenties or thirties) all Catholic cemetery where a few of the gravestones had pebbles on them to show they were still being visited. This graveyard was located atop a hill and had a spectacular view of the fields below. It has since been gated and locked because vandals are always disrespectfully messing with graves. Also, I find it to be reverent and nice to bring a stone, if you are visiting a Jewish cemetery. It would seem weird to do this for everyone buried there, so I bring one and leave it by the gate for all of the deceased. I feel that this is respectful and that I’m not simply just tromping through their burial ground all willy-nilly.
I loved the idea of placing tz’ror on my loved one’s graves when I would visit, that I started incorporating that. However, they are not in a Jewish cemetery, as we are not Jewish, and therefore when I come back to visit, they’ll be knocked all around in the grass or near-by. I did notice that they kept disappearing at first, when it was just me placing one rock on three graves, that of my grandfather whom I didn’t know, and of my grandmother and my brother; but when the family would visit with me and there were four rocks on each grave, they weren’t being moved as much. I’m sure the caretakers were just seeing it as an errant stray rock marring the headstone and were being helpful. I can’t blame them, they obviously don’t understand the custom.
I would have been doing this for my paternal grandfather, but no one lives in or visits Laurel, so no other family members would be upset by or wondering about the pebbles left there for my maternal side of the family. But this is not true for Natchez. There are a lot of family members there that will visit my grandfather, and now my grandmother’s grave site, so I just don’t do it there.
I have also incorporated other culture’s view of the dead in with my own. The celebration of Dia de los Muertos is not merely about sugar skull items you can buy at Halloween; it is a Mexican custom of celebrating your dead loved one’s. It is a three-day celebration with parades, as well as time spent in the local graveyard, cleaning up family graves and helping your neighbours clean up their family graves, and having a picnic of sorts with your deceased relatives. This latter bit is what I have incorporated in. On 1. November we go to Laurel to tend to our family. We clean and wash the head stones, place a new tz’ror, and just spend a little time, eating something we’ve brought or enjoying some coffee.
I have also created a hodge-podge between two cultural practices of leaving offerings. The Chinese have their alters where they leave paper money, oranges, tobacco, and other things, and practitioners of hoodoo leave offerings of the persons drink preference at the grave site. There are numerous other cultures who leave offerings as well; either at special alters in their homes, at shrines, or at the grave sites.
For my family in Laurel, I make up a pot of coffee before-hand and sweeten it with a lot of sugar. All three members enjoyed coffee, but my brother was diabetic and died from those complications, so the sugar is for him. I pour it out underneath their flat memorial stones, with the most of it going for my brother. I also leave a cigarette for my brother as he was a smoker in life. And taking from Chinese and Japanese traditions, I light a joss stick for each of them, and stick it in the ground above their grave.
I do this because it makes me happy to do so. I know that my family is not there, simply their bones or ashes. I also realize that offerings probably do not transcend time and space to be received by the dead, but it is a nice thought to me, none-the-less, that I can give them things that they would like.
I do not necessarily believe in magic, but I believe in energy and intentions. If one sets out with loving intentions, I believe that the energy from that can be felt. I also believe that if one sets out with negative intentions, that the energy from that can also be felt. Which, to me, is why some things seem to feel creepy, while others do not. It’s not that there is an evil ghost there, it is simply the residual intentions left by the living that you are feeling. Though I like to believe that there are ghosts, because I like to believe that things we can not see exist, like yeti’s and faeries and such, because it makes me happy to believe in them.
What I do is not conjuring. It is simply showing that I love and miss my loved one’s who are no longer here. I also feel that their graves are an extension of my home. They are my private property because they are my relatives’ final resting places. I feel that I can freely hang out on that spot or share some coffee, if I wish.
However, conjuring does happen all over the south. I don’t necessarily believe that people have been risen from the dead or bound or whatever else is supposed to happen, but the people who practice conjuring certainly believe it. Whatever the practitioners intention, whether to bind the soul or wake up, they did so with negative, non-loving energy, and it has left its mark. It’s also evident by what is left behind.
Besides showing respect for the dead, and the living who still visit, it’s always an unspoken rule to never touch or disturb anything that is laid out for the dead. You might see one grave with a teddy bear on it and it feels sweet, and you might think, “Aww, that mama loved her baby, that’s so sad.” and it’s a nice poignant moment. Then you’ll see another grave with a teddy bear and you somehow feel uneasy. It’s because someone left that teddy bear there, not in a show of love, but of hate. It feels bad. Even if you do not believe that there is magic in conjuring and hoodoo, you still don’t want to touch it. Just don’t.
You might even see weird hand-made things out of vines, like miniature chairs or beds, or you might even see what appears to be trash like old coffee cans. But, they feel wrong. Just don’t touch them. I’d suggest not even going near them. Even if you claim that you can’t see or feel a difference, or if you are in denial of whether it tugs at your guts in a warning type of way or not, just don’t touch anything, which is an excellent rule for good graveyard etiquette anyway. You leave what the living has placed out for the dead, in a show of respect.
Whether you think something is trash or not, or whether flowers have been overturned, you just leave it. You might think you are being helpful, but it is best left to the living family members to deal with. You think those flowers are overturned because of vandals or a storm, but perhaps that is what the family does. Or they simply want to lay them on the ground and not in the vase that is provided. Or you think the rocks are the work of vandals or the care takers errant fault while mowing. It could be, but it could also be someone leaving tz’ror, even in a non-Jewish cemetery.
Another excellent rule of graveyard etiquette is to actually treat it as a place for these people’s final resting places. Don’t let your children run wild. Don’t tread on the dead. You may stand, kneel, sit, lay or whatever else that is OK to do (as crass as it is, it must be said, never had sex or relieve yourself on dead people’s graves. You’ll see it in films, the sex part, or you might hear about someone using the bathroom in a cemetery, as I have. Just don’t. It’s beyond rude and I’m ashamed to know of people in my life who have done both.) on your OWN families plots, but never on the plot of someone you do not know. Have a care.
What if the deceased are connected in some way to their resting places? What if the living see you tromping all over their dead? It’s just good manners to treat the grave sites as if they still contain people who know what’s going on, even if you don’t believe that the dead (or the living) care. Think about others. If it helps, cemeteries are not public property. Every grave in there is paid for, and is therefore owned by the living relatives. This is like stepping on the furniture in someone’s house. That grave isn’t your property, but is private, and it should be treated with respect, because human remains are always to be treated with respect.
Now, I’ve not been to a graveyard that was jam-packed. Here they are either Memorial Gardens (generally meaning low-lying head stones so as not to obstruct the view… of what though? Does this make the cemetery less cemetery-like and less creepy? Is it easy to mow and maintain? I don’t know, I don’t like them.) or Cemeteries that are older and therefor are what people go to view because they have the upright standing headstones or beautiful monoliths and statuary that isn’t prevalent today. However, unless it’s a random and abandoned cemetery that you found in the woods, (which means it was probably a family cemetery from a hundred years ago or more, attached to a homestead before the relatives moved away or died off), then they’ll be neat and quaint rows for walking, so there isn’t really any excuse to be gallivanting over the dead.
In line with not stepping on the grave sites, this also goes for wanting to inspect a headstone better. Just move to either side of the grave and move up to the headstone. You’ll be in between buried people and never on top of them. This is how I take photographs of headstones, from the side, never in front. If I can get a good shot, by standing at the feet of the deceased, but never on them, and I’m also not entering into another persons space behind me, I will do this for a photograph.
However, in older cemeteries starting with the European colonization of North America, primarily, I would think, in New England (I don’t know, I’ve not been to any, so they could be quite crowded), and especially very old cemeteries in Europe, there are so many people beneath the ground that you absolutely have to walk on them, because we don’t have the ability to hover or fly. Obviously in this case, there’s nothing for it but to walk on them, because you must, but you should also be very aware that you are walking over centuries of dead people and have some sort of respect about the entire affair.
Also, if you ever feel at any time an uneasy feeling, simply don’t go towards the uneasy feeling. Just don’t. For whatever reason, conjuring or the dead still being connected to their graves or simply bad energy; you are not wanted, so just don’t go. I honestly don’t know if anything will happen to you. I do know that your energy can co-mingle and absorb other energy. Think about hanging out with people you know. You’re in a group and everyone is giddy, you’ll end up feeling giddy too before long. Or you’re in a group of people who are mopey or down, stay around long enough and your mood will have changed and even if you aren’t completely depressed, you certainly won’t be nearly as happy or carefree as you were prior. It is the energy that you are surrounded by. The same is true for residual energy in places. So, always listen to your gut and if something feels off, just turn around. This is probably a good lesson for life in general to be honest.
But there are other, very happy funerary and cemetery traditions in the south. In New Orleans, and the surrounding areas, they do what is called a Second Line. Technically second line are the random people who gather to walk after the band and initial walkers, who are the main line, but this type of parade is simply known as Second Line, whether there are random people or not. They’ll actually do this for just about any special occasion like a wedding or festival or clubs having a parade, or whenever they just feel the need for one, but they will also do this for the dead. It’s just a parade of all the mourners accompanied by a live band, usually wending their way to the cemetery. It is a show of love and respect for the one who has passed on.
Technically to New Orleanians, this is simply a funeral with music, it’s just that jazz (since the twenties) is the music of New Orleans, so it’s played in any type of second line, or anywhere else for that matter. However, Funeral Second Lines are generally a more sombre affair than a wedding or parade Second Line, with more traditional funerary dirges, but sometimes still some jazz. It depends on the person who died, or the family members orchestrating the Second Line, as to preference. However, if you ever encounter a Second Line when in New Orleans, it’s generally OK to jump in and follow, though have some manners about it, IF it’s for a wedding or general parade and never for one of the funeral variety. For this you stop and solemnly watch to pay your respects.
Southerners are huge on food, as I’ve previously mentioned in a post about Funeral food. Food symbolizes that things will be OK and that one is loved. For a southerner, the best way to cheer someone up or to show love, is to offer them some food. It’s just how we are. We have loads of comfort foods and these cheer people up to partake of them. We’re not trying to make you fat or unhealthy, we’re trying to show you that we care enough about you to offer you some of our food. I’m not certain whether southerners were always so generous, but they were during and after The Civil War.
Food shortages and lean years brought on by basic war and then Union occupation later, forced southerners to make do with what they had, which ended up in recipes that are now touted as Southern favourites like collard greens or pot liquor and cornbread. It also was so deeply instilled in us and passed down through generations that no one should go hungry, ever; which also ended up translating into love. If I love you enough to prepare food for you and share it with you, that’s a big deal because I’m instilled to remember the lean times. Also, my mama and nanny fixed me food when I was sad or not feeling well and it showed love and made me feel better that’s how I can fix the broken for you as well.
In the aftermath of the 2004 Tsunami, The Red Cross and other organizations thanked Mississippi for their generosity, but said that no more food was needed. Mississippians donated heavily to those who were effected and it was all food, because we felt for them and tried to fix the broken in the best and only way we knew how. It is not different for the bereaved who have lost someone. Southerners will have food after the funeral, for all of the mourners to eat, and most of that food was prepared by neighbours, church members, family, and friends of the grieving; most times the affair is orchestrated by the bereaved in an effort to thank and show appreciation and love to the people who have come to help mourn the deceased. However, these friends and neighbours will also prepare casseroles, desserts, and such just for the family to partake of, after the funeral, so they won’t have to worry with cooking anything to eat for themselves… for months!
I have been to numerous cemeteries all over the south, from Maryland to Arkansas and Tennessee to Florida. I have been to newer cemeteries and very old historic ones, in rural and urban settings. I have been to ones where there is a lot of energy, but it’s nice, and some with a lot of energy that are not nice at all, and ones whose energy, for good or bad, is only concentrated in spots. I have been to slave cemeteries and paid my respects. I have been to cemeteries housing only nuns and priests. I have been to cemeteries that hold the remains of famous people. I have been to all black cemeteries and all white ones. Small out-of-the-way ones and small long forgotten ones. I have paid my respects to my unknown to me ancestors in Arkansas and southern Mississippi.
There’s always, always something interesting to see in a cemetery. They can be creepy, but not because of anything that the dead represent, only because of the living, for the most part they are really pleasant. Go take a walk around your own historic cemetery and see what there is to see. Perhaps some things will be the same as ones I have discussed or perhaps there will be something no one else has except your area.