Friday, June 25, 2010

The art of dying in the South

We like to say people are judged on how they live, but the truth is, in the South, we are more than often judged on how we die.

A person can live an ordinary life, going to church now and then, raise a family, not break any salacious commandments and die quietly in his or her sleep and go completely unnoticed. Sure, his children will miss him.

"What a great dad he was," they'll say. His wife will miss him. Of course, she'll remarry and be buried next to husband number two. And who's to blame her? How can she spend the next 25 years alone?

In a blink, the man will be gone. His grandchildren may remember him by his kindness and the way he shook silently when he laughed, but his great grandchildren?

Now, let him die at age 83 from being bitten numerous times by a rattlesnake while changing the blade on his lawnmower, and the man's a legend. Die in his bed by a lit cigarette, and he's white trash. Struck by lightning, and he is unlucky. Hit by a car, and it's tragic. Stricken by cancer, and it's a shame. We sum up a person's life on how they die.

I, like most Southerners, tend to be a little fixated on death. Don't think we are as a culture? Then count the crosses on the way to Panama City Beach. I've done it before -- with the kids -- as a pastime. (It was pre-DVD.)

I read that the South is one of the few places that honor its dead with roadside crosses. I'm not saying we should or we shouldn't. I know the tributes mean something to the families, but it's amazing how commonplace they are. The total is 900 and something, by the way. That's how many there were 15 years ago. We had so much fun counting them that I refused to do it again.

I can remember being a little girl and Mama pulling over to let a funeral procession pass. We lived not far from a cemetery, so it was fairly common place. Back then, we didn't have air conditioning, so we had to sit in the heat and wait and wait for what, to my younger sister and me, seemed like an eternity.

But my mom always waited patiently, and when we whined, she told us that pulling over was a sign of respect. We hushed after that. We could tell she meant it. Today, people in the South still pull over for funeral processions, though we aren't as patient about it. In our air-conditioned cars, we moan and groan and roll our eyes at the inconvenience. But for the families, it means everything, so we continue to do it, even though we are in a hurry to get to the pool or the store or a birthday party.

We do it because Southerners are really good at death. Not the act of it, which they -- for the most part -- have no control over, but the after. If someone in your family dies, you will have 10 people at your door bringing you things you didn't even know you needed, from toilet paper to paper cups to baskets full of food and a truckload of ice.

And the most amazing part is you won't know or you will barely know half of these people, yet they will take care of you just the same. You may have rarely spoken to them, but if someone dies, they'll be there cleaning the house while you are at the funeral, serving you and your company food when you get home and reminding you that even in the face of death, it's living; it's the living that really matters.

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