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  • Lay It All on the Table:Death in the American South
  • Abigail Lundelius Smith (bio)

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Kitchen table, c. 1950. The table follows a traditional pattern of canted corners covered with oilcloth, with a molded-strip drawer resting on side runners and a leather handle.

Photographed by Alfred Harrell. Image courtesy of the Paradise Valley Folklife Project collection, 1978-1982 (AFC 1991/021), American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.

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Tables are places where letters are written, games are played, and meals are eaten. In short, tables are places where life happens. But, what happens when the tables are turned? What happens when the table becomes a place of death? The relationship of death and the table is a long established one, particularly in the American South. In his 1750 will, Thomas Lee of Virginia bemoaned the “much indecent Mirth at Funerals” (“Deeds & Wills” 137). Such antipathy to funeral feasting and festivity was not universal, however. In a will dated April 30, 1776, Alexander Campbell of Maryland instructed his executors “that five Gallons of Rum and five Gallons of Spirits and two Bushels of Wheat Flour made into good Biskets be decently Spent at my Burial” (“Wills, 1776-1777” 12). South Carolina resident William Taylor insisted in an 1822 will that his “Trustees shall not suffer a funeral sermon preacht on account of my remains … have no serimony of words or songs about my remains, but have me decently burryed & furnish plenty to eat & drink of the best let none go away empty or dry” (“Wills of Richland” 43). Despite the solemnity of the occasion, feasting was the order of the day, usually at the behest of the deceased eager to host a final meal.

The tradition continues into the contemporary South. Published in 2004, Jessica Ward’s Food to Die For: A Book of Funeral Food, Tips, and Tales from the Old City Cemetery, Lynchburg, Virginia is a collection of delicious recipes, lighthearted tales, and practical advice. The next year, three ladies collaborated on Being Dead is No Excuse: The Official Southern Ladies Guide to Hosting the Perfect Funeral, a work wherein anecdotes of death are sprinkled amongst yummy bereavement receipts. The 2008 rap album and title song, “Come for Da Funeral, Stay for Da Food” by Speech Defect might be the most entertaining of recent offerings on the topic. And no one [End Page 73] more honestly captures the complicated role of food and death than Mississippi-born singer and songwriter Kate Campbell. In her recollection of “Funeral Food” she writes, “We sure eat good when someone dies.” Clearly, food and funerals keep close company—particularly when, in addition to tasty victuals, death itself is set on the table.

In early American death ways, the practice of laying death on the table, especially in the South, is a tradition rooted in the land across the Atlantic. In his look at folkways in America, David Fischer argues that the “border customs [of Scotland and Ireland] were carried to the American backcountry in the eighteenth century. The same process of death-watching and laying-out was followed. Even the smallest details were observed in the New World. The corpse was laid out on a board” (702). Writing in the late-nineteenth century, E. Sydney Hartland notes that in addition to Ireland, England, Wales, and the Scottish Lowlands, certain funereal characteristics can also be traced to Bavaria and Hungary—all regions with strong settlement presence in the southern backcountry. In his 1888 article discussing the “Funeral Customs of Ireland,” James Mooney notes that “as soon as life is found to be extinct the neighbor women take charge of the body, which is washd [sic] and drest and stretchd [sic] upon a board resting on a table or the backs of chairs” (267). Looking at Death and Dying in Central Appalachia, historian James Crissman writes, “before the wake started, the family placed the prepared body on display in the home, usually in a coffin, where it remained until the funeral and burial. The site was usually the living room or parlor. It was exhibited on either a table or two chairs” (71). Traditions of...


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