"Funerals in the South" first appeared in issue 293.2, March-April 2008. It was a finalist in the James Hearst Poetry Prize in 2008.
Funerals in the South
We didn’t sing “My Old Kentucky Home” or “Dixie,”
but we might as well have. Without fail, neighbors
poured in with Tupperware-sealed Texas sheet cakes,
Jello, to-die-for fried chicken, ham, pecan pie. Grief,
it turns out, swallows easier than you might think.
I can tell you now the adults scared us, the children,
opening their hearts to loss. The scariest of mourners
had to be Myrtle, my aunt, a holy-roller fond of saying
Satan had her by the throat—she called him Beelzebub,
as though a sort of respect or friendship had sprung up.
At the eulogy—hellfire and damnation were preached
over our dead who, byGod, had to listen—she’d raise
a bony arm to signify that the Holy Ghost, “the Spirit,”
was upon her. Sooner or later, shouting Je-sus! Je-sus!
until it echoed in the funeral home like a braking train
whose wheel-song of descent calls to mind journeys,
an end to journeying. If the casket was closed, she’d
pound a lid; if it was open, she’d take hold of a hand
or trace the rouged-and-powdered contours of a face.
Thankfully, she had limits. Mouths were sacrosanct.
No smooching the chill lips of the Departed. Which
I understood, even then: a body’s temperature after
embalming isn’t a thing to have register at any age.
If April is the cruelest month, then it’s always April
in some part of eastern Kentucky. I wanted to sing:
Weep no more my lady. Oh! Weep no more today!
But I was a kid. I sang what and when I was told.
If there’s a God, enthroned in some obscene palace,
weeping because one Cross and Savior isn’t enough,
not in the coal towns, then she was right to sign on
as cheerleader. If not, there’s the solace of food—
napkins under chins to catch the hallelujah crumbs.
Illustration credit: GRIEF FOOD. (Mobile Register, John David Mercer) LIVING RELIGION