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The Book of the Dead
I suspect that few kinds of people spend more time poring over the dead than coroners, morticians, and southerners. But unlike the rest, southerners are most interested in digging them up.
One wit said, “Southerners are like the Chinese: they eat rice with every meal and worship their ancestors.” Regional dietary customs notwithstanding, this does brush up against the truth.
Upon meeting a new acquaintance, it is not unusual for a southerner’s first question to be “Where are you from,” which may seem innocuous enough, but translated from the original Scotch-Irish that means, “So, who are your people?” And the appropriate response is to begin quoting an obituary column. One shouldn’t mention one’s living Uncle Ned, the tippler and skirtchaser, when one can just as easily say, “My papaw was the farrier that kept Traveller in shoes.”
To outsiders this may look like run of the mill snobbery, but in reality it is simply the way my people have sought to apply the first commandment with promise: “Honor thy father and thy mother; that it may be well with thee, and that thou mayest live long upon the earth.”
To that end, in the late Spring we hold “Decoration Days” to clean and polish tombstones, and make sure there are plenty of fresh flowers on the burial plots of our forebears. This is also when we begin training our children in ancestral geography.
“You’re great-great-great granddaddy, George, is buried right there beside the Wisteria bush. ”
This also provides an opportunity for catechesis in familial hagiography, as well as instruction with regards to the reliquary present in most southern homes.
“Grandpa George was shot in the leg at the Battle of Longview by some damn Yankee and walked stiff-legged the rest of his life. But Jeff Davis paid him fifty dollars for his trouble. Our granddaddy was so proud of it that he never spent it. Instead, he passed it down, along with the ball they dug out of his thigh. They’re laying in the little keepsake box under the coffee table beside his own grandson’s nitroglycerin pills and his reading glasses. That’ll be yours someday.”
But traipsing through graveyards is only a small part of our cultural coursework. The lion’s share of our education comes by way of oral history–stories about this one and that one told on porches and supper tables and hunting camp bonfires. Even when we are at some remove from the cemetery, the dead are always there.
In addition to these unwritten records and myths, every family has its own genealogical tome, as mystical and sacred as the Tibetan Book of the Dead. It is usually the womenfolk of the clan who attend its mysteries, tracing names and dates, always on a grail quest for someone else of note to be descended from. Invariably, there is always one elderly lady in the family–the Keeper of Memories–whose vocation is to tell us who married whom and why certain cousins should be pitied on account of their lowly stock.
The genealogical record is often treated like Burke’s Peerage. “You see here, Junior, you don’t have to take no guff from Billy Burnside. You are descended from General George Washington, Alfred the Great, and Dr. John Pemberton who invented Coca Cola. Them Burnsides ain’t never descended from nobody but the bastard son of Thomas Jefferson’s bricklayer.” It is taken for granted that five out of ten southerners can point to their name on the passenger manifest for one of William the Conqueror’s rowboats.
At our house, whenever The Book was wrested from its shrine, Granddaddy would quip, “Yall be careful now. Ain’t no tellin’ what kind of dogs yall are gonna find in them old kennel papers.” But even he knew its importance, himself having issued from the loins of some ill-fated 16th Century earl who lost his estate for want of a birth certificate.
Many blame good breeding for the fact that the South was content to involve itself in a war without playing home to a single canon factory–after all, we were Gentlemen. Surely that was enough to whip any adversary, they imagined.
While it may not have been enough, it ain’t nothing. For instance, we rarely suffer from anything as pedestrian as an “identity crisis.” We can trace our roots all the way back to Agamemnon and Agincourt, so if we happen to wind up on some psychiatrist’s couch we are able to indict almost any minor flaw as a genetic predisposition.
All of this has had a beneficial effect, though. Southerners are less prone to the kind of garden-variety status seeking that plagues many other Americans. Down here, we aren’t as worried about keeping up with the Joneses. Why buy a McMansion and lord it over the Joneses when we can point out that they all sprang from the rotten lap of someone like Guy Fawkes?
In a bid to keep such ne'er do wells from dangling conspicuously from the family tree, many southerners have married people to whom they were already related by blood. Thus in my part of the world it is not uncommon to have double-first cousins or find some soul fortunate enough to actually be kin to themselves. One of my great-aunts took great delight in referring to her mother as “Cousin Opal,” as though anyone who couldn’t claim dual kinship was guilty of mésalliance.
There is a measure of myth-making involved, no doubt. But this seems preferable to that presentist myth which holds that all that makes a man worth a damn is dollars and cents with no regard for how he got into the world to begin, or how he lives once he’s here.
Southerners are often derided for their devotion to their dead because we belong to such organizations as “Sons of Confederate Veterans” or “Save the Monuments” or “Save the Live Oak Tree on Highway 87 West.” But what is this but ecology? Who are we but custodians of memory? Is it really the case that because we now have watches that talk nothing matters beyond five minutes ago? Should we not want to live in such a way that the influence of our lives is not interred with our bones? Just so, a legacy isn’t necessarily part of the package when one buys a coffin and a wreath. Because memories are the sort of thing that pass away if they aren’t passed on.
Southerners also understand that memories can be destroyed even more easily than monuments. So we build our best memorials out of hand-me-down stories and the yellowing pages of family records. In this way, our namesakes become our greatest keepsakes. Because we believe that as long as all those who have held these names are held in living memory, they are never really dead at all.