- The Cultural Context and Expressions of Deathways in the US South
Everybody dies. Human societies nonetheless construct differing ways of handling the social crisis of mortality, reflecting the values, customs, attitudes, rituals, and institutions that define particular places. In one sense, deathways in the US South reflect universal instincts, and surely they are American ways of death. People in the South have long had particular ways of dealing with death, and these essays offer case studies of how the broader cultural context of the South has shaped death. Particular attention is given to ways creative expressions explore meanings of death. The rural and small town context of life for most Southerners through most of Southern history, for example, shaped reactions to death. As Mississippi writer Willie Morris wrote after attending his grandmother’s funeral in Yazoo City in 1967, people he saw were “immersed in a web of death, for death in a small Southern town is like death in no other place” (92). Deathways in the South often were broadly like those elsewhere, but Southerners just as often saw meaning in them that they attached to the region’s culture. Many themes resonate through these essays, often overlapping with each other and creating a conversation among the individual pieces.
As an opening to this topic, I draw from the memory of Dora Epps-Mc-Nair. I served as an expert witness in a trial in the 1990s that turned on Southern deathways, and the story of Dora Epps-McNair exemplifies many aspects of death in the South that make the region a particular context for experiencing mortality. This rural, religious African American woman from South Carolina went to the Duke University Medical Center for a medical procedure that resulted in her untimely passing. Under such circumstances, the state of North Carolina requires an autopsy, after which, in this case, the [End Page 5] funeral director who received the body was appalled at the damage done to the corpse, preventing the customary open casket funeral. The family pursued a civil case against the institution, after one family member had received a spirit visitation from Epps-McNair, who told her that she could not be at peace until some acknowledgement was made of what had happened to her. A jury verdict awarded damages to the family. I testified to the power of African American folklore’s belief on the need to preserve the body as a temple for the afterlife and the centrality of evangelical religious belief in providing a worldview on life and death.
Epps-McNair’s story touched on many recurring features of deathways in the South’s regional culture. Her family was Pentecostal, a spirit-filled religious variant of the region’s long dominant evangelical Protestantism, one that emphasizes bodily purity in preparation for a bodily resurrection in the afterlife. Death has been seen as a lesson for survivors on the need to “get right with God.” Funeral hymns, prayers, and sermons portray the peace of heaven, but they also urge listeners to contemplate the future. When the hour of judgment comes, will the mourners be ready to meet their Lord? Southern evangelical theology sees the death and mourning process as a trial, during which faith in God is tested. The afflicted family confronts the most basic questions of human existence and affirms the answers given to those questions by Southern religious tradition. Epps-McNair was from rural South Carolina, and African American folk life there goes back a long way, with inheritances from African sacred traditions and Southern customs of wakes and open casket funerals. Stories and sayings about death reverberate through everyday conversation. Various Southerners, according to folk teachings, have believed that when someone dies, a person should stop all clocks and cover or hide all mirrors. Deaths occur in threes. Folklore says a corpse must be carried from a house feet first. Images and themes of death pervaded early country music and the blues, which drew from oral lore. Epps-McNair’s story illustrates as well the perpetual tension in the South between tradition and modernity—a rural, religious family encountering a modern medical institution. Urbanization, industrialization, consumerism—these and other...