Thursday, October 11, 2007

Respect for the Dead

My folks were in to life lessons and they never missed a chance to teach. My mama loved Christmas because of the looks on the faces of us kids when we opened our presents. She made a big to do every year for our birthdays, cooking our favorite dish and baking our favorite kind of cake. She also never let a death pass unhonored. If someone in the community passed away, the family of the deceased had better make room on their tables and refrigerators because a mountain of food was coming. And in the days before funeral homes became common, it was customary for the families to "bring the body home" for the viewing. I know she sat with grieving families through the night.
I remember one time when a neighbor died and was to be buried at the Davis Cemetery. My dad went down to help dig the grave. There were no backhoes or other digging machines available so the hole had to be dug by hand with picks and shovels.
I could not have been much older than ten years old at the time. The grave plot was on the side of one of the steep banks and when we arrived, the digging had already begun.
There was eight or ten other men from the community there and they would take turns digging in the clay and shell rock which is common to that area.
Some men dug and the others would sit around the excavation, pass a jug of whiskey and tell stories about the deceased. Some of the stories were funny but others were more solemn. I did not see tears but it was obvious the deceased was loved, though he would never have heard those words from these men had he lived a million years old.
It was hard work but I never once heard a complaint. It was not only a duty, but an honor to dig the grave of a lifelong friend. When it came my turn to dig, I jumped in the hole and shoveled for a long time and listened and the stories were told. When I got out of the hole I sat on the edge and took it all in. Just then the jug was passed to me. I was surprise and did not quite know what to do but my dad nodded at me and I touched the whiskey to my lips. It burned like kerosene and I quickly wiped my mouth on my sleeve but none of the men there seemed to notice my reaction.
It felt like a rite of passage that day and I learned some things -
People show their respect for the dead in interesting ways
And you'd better have a stomach lined with tin if you drink much whiskey

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