As you know, I am a mountain woman and tangentially a Southerner. As I’m studying traditions from many cultures related to death and dying, I keep coming up to the modern Western world where so may people are unsure how to act when they hear of a nearby death.
People aren’t sure what to say or what to do, and sometimes find themselves doing nothing at all, which is frustrating for them and not at all helpful for the family of the deceased.
But in the South, we know exactly what to do and are often invigorated by getting on with the process. When we hear that someone has died, we make (or buy) food and we take it to the house.
Seems simply enough, doesn’t it? My family is all about fried chicken, preferably home-cooked. (But not my mother’s–she was terrible at frying chicken.) Most people have a favorite thing they bring–sometimes banana pudding, sometimes potato salad or devilled eggs. Or a nice cake.
You make (or otherwise gather up) the food, you might pick up a potted plant at the garden center or even at the grocery store and you arrange to go to the house. You might call first–to make sure someone will be home and not off doing the thousand and one details that must be attended after a death in the family.
You allow plenty of time to simply hang out with the family. You help jam the food into the over-stocked fridge, maybe take a proffered coke or some coffee and you sit down. There are questions to be asked but most Southerners are happy to oblige you with the details of the up-coming service, including the burial arrangements.
You make small talk for a while–usually about the deceased or when other members of the family are arriving. And someone close to the dead person will carry the story of the death itself.
There is always one–the person who is silently designated to tell the story again and again. All they need is the light Southern prompt–lawsy, what in the world happened? The story then spills out of the mouth of the keeper and you respond accordingly, maybe sharing how the same thing happened to your mutual great-grandfather.
The time wends on and the talk will turn to other generations of the family or recent gossip about who’s about to get married or divorced or have a baby. Food will come out, at some point, and you will be invited to eat something because there is so much.
That is how it is in the South–the story of the death and the visitation to the family. We arrive expecting to hear a story and prepared to share one of our own. And we come to listen and to cry and to tell scandalous tales of the deceased in her/his youth.