A print from an old Romanian preschool textbook dated from the time of communism.
The old man was laid out on the dining room table in a nice wool coat and his wooden leg had the gleam of fresh polish. Carla and I, like good little American kids, prepared to "offer our condolences", a bunch of fancy, tender words plucked and arranged in a bouquet, to the elderly gentleman's wife but whenever she ran out of the breath required to sustain her long wails, two other ladies with scarves tied neatly round their chins would pick up the chorus. There was no proper time or place for the offering of verbal bouquets in the death vigil of the Romanian peasant who lived across the street in the village of Bran.
I've never been able to erase the images of this vigil from my mind.
"She must have loved him SO much to cry like this," I whispered to my cousin.
"Right," he muttered, "He beat her with his wooden leg almost every night. I don't think she will miss those beatings." Standing on hallowed ground scoops the breath from your chest like ice cream. Carla's little face crumpled into that look of concern that covered for fear and worry. For two or three days, villagers streamed in and out of the house to pay their respects. The wailing continued. When the widow's voice grew hoarse and raspy from mourning, other village ladies picked up the slack. The old man's spirit may have left his body, but no one else in town would leave the body alone until he was safely covered with the dirt he had worked his entire life.
My travels and experiences have taught me that village life and folkways tend to be similar across cultures. Enjoying every sinewy morsel of Mitchell B. Garrett's Horse and Buggy Days on Hatchet Creek, I wasn't surprised to find a similar dead-ication in Reconstruction Alabama. Garrett reports:
When a person died, the relatives of the deceased were expected to weep and wail a right smart to indicate their grief, lapsing at intervals into a sort of comatose condition. Good neighbors "laid out" the body, that is, washed and dressed it for burial, and laid it out on the best bed in the parlor with the eyes closed and the hands folded across the chest. Since one night at least always intervened between death and burial, it was the custom to sit up with the corpse from twilight till dawn. This last service was often performed by a group of young people of courting age who dropped in at nightfall, packed the aggrieved family off to bed, and took over the premises for a quiet social gathering. If the season was summer, they could sit on the front porch, talk, and play games; if winter, they could sit in the living room or kitchen by the open fire. There was nothing especially solemn about "sitting up with the body".
I wonder how many love stories began with a wake, how many kisses were stolen from the excuse to go and check on the body. The Pine Hill Haints need a song about this....
Garrett goes on to explain that tombstone were "two long flat rocks picked up in the neighborhood" and specific practices governed the digging of graves.
Graves were always dug with careful reference to the points of the compass-- the head towards the west, so that on the Resurrection Morning the body would rise with the face toward the break of day and the rising sun.
I'm still stuck somewhere back on that porch with the crickets, fireflies, and kisses of endless summer nights.
More butterflies to chase in this meadow:
- "Sitting Up With the Dead", a lovely historical look at this Southern practice (Jospehine's Journal)
- A gaze through the history of staying up with the dead (Every City Is A Small Town)
- A brief history of Hatchet Creek (John B. Scott Jr.)
- Other books written about Clay County, Alabama (Clay County Chamber of Commerce)