- Winning Friends and Influencing Dead People
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When young men of my generation were asked to be pallbearers at a funeral, they knew they had been accepted into the ranks of southern manhood. An even higher masculine honor was an invitation to “sit-up with the dead.”
Back when the dearly departed were routinely brought home for the wake, the protocol required that someone, usually male friends or relatives, sit up all night with the coffin after the visitors left so the deceased was not left alone while the grieving family slept.
These episodes were not so much a time of mourning as they were a chance for men to talk and gossip into the wee hours. Men love to gab as much as women but need hunting campfires, or fishing trips, or other macho pretenses to partake of this pleasure.
An older relative, Vernon, who passed away in the Sixties, was the last person I knew who was brought home when he died. His wife Della asked if I would sit up with Vernon’s corpse, and I agreed.
Following the prescribed ritual, she scheduled two-man teams of Vernon’s friends and relatives to take four-hour shifts through the cold February night. I and one of Vernon’s chums, Joe, were scheduled for the 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. slot. I was not acquainted with Joe, who was described as Vernon’s best friend from their rambling single years. According to Della, Vernon and Joe had been “running buddies.”
Vernon and Della lived in a mill village house a block from the east Alabama cotton mill where he had worked. When I arrived at two, the four-room house was dark, save for a dim lamp in the front room where Vernon was on display, snug in his gray metal casket.
He was flanked by a few sparse funeral wreaths, the furniture in the room had been moved against the wall, and a row of six folding metal chairs from the funeral home was lined up in front of him.
As I had climbed the steps, Vernon’s old pal Joe was standing under the feeble yellow porch light, stomping his feet trying to stay warm. He was smoking a cigar, bundled from the cold in a heavy overcoat, wearing a grey Stetson hat, and emanating pungent vapors of cheap bourbon—a real bona fide dirt-road sport.
After relieving the two sitters who had been there for the previous four hours, and paying our respects to Vernon, Joe and I pulled our chairs close to the hissing gas space heater and got acquainted. He never removed his overcoat and hat. (This was decades before global warming. On that particularly frigid winter’s night, I’m sure even a young Al Gore was turning up the thermostat.)
Joe turned out to be a gregarious fellow, and full of hilarious tales relating to his and Vernon’s rambunctious younger days. His stories were punctuated by deep gurgling swigs from a pint of bourbon pulled from inside his overcoat and blue puffs from his acrid stogy. As the hours moved along, Joe’s beefy face got redder [End Page 101] and his voice got louder. When making a point, he would look in the direction of the coffin and, laughing raucously, yell, “Ain’t that right, Vern?”
Joe was on his second pint of Johnny Drum when the subject turned to Vernon’s wife Della. Joe became wistful and said that Della had been his first love, and, by all rights, should have been his, not Vernon’s. Suddenly, leaping to his feet, he staggered over to Vernon’s coffin and began cursing.
“Vern, you blankety-blankety old so-and-so...