Funerals in the rural southern United States can be a funny thing, and they can be accompanied with all sorts of folk religion. But that makes sense, because — whereas in many places they have been replaced with “memorial services” — for the most part funerals are still considered a religious service in the south.

While funerals are functionally about remembering and burying the dead, they may not specifically focus on the person in the casket. I’ve been to funerals that were nearly indistinguishable from regular church services (with the exception of the body in the front), and I’ve heard an altar call given at a funeral. In one instance, there was even dancing — and not spiteful dancing, as in dancing on your grave, but rather ecstatic charismatic dancing. Chalk it up to eternal hope in the resurrection, I suppose.

Even after the funeral, we have our customs. A few pious Catholics will make the sign of the cross as the hearse bearing the deceased crosses their path, but the most notable southern funeral procession custom is that all business — everywhere — stops until the procession passes. If you’re driving, you pull over to the side of the road until the last car in the procession has passed your back fender; if you’re on the sidewalk, you stand there and wait. I’ve seen a couple of almost wrecks caused by vehicles on four-lane highways trying to get over and park because of an approaching funeral procession; for that matter, I’ve seen vehicles stop on the highway for a funeral procession. Southerners don’t typically know why we do this, necessarily, but we all know it has something to do with respect.

When it comes to burial, graves are dug with feet facing east, supposedly so that during the Resurrection the departed in the Lord will meet him face first as they rise from the grave. I’ve only heard this in books, though, and never from a lay person, and the Jewish graves in our local historic cemetery also face the east. I don’t know if that’s for practical purposes (so everything looks uniform), or because the grave diggers just did it that way (“that’s how we always do it”), but I doubt the Jews had the same theology behind their burial practice as the Christians.

Supposedly, in times now past apostates and atheists were buried with their feet facing south to show that they have turned their back on God, but I’ve never noted it in practice. However, I do know of at least one witch’s grave buried outside of consecrated ground in Natchez. 

But even after the burial, there’s still more, and it involves an almost sacramental southern act — eating. Following a funeral, family and friends of the deceased gather at a central location, possibly a church and possibly the home of the departed, and then they have a large feast. Mourning makes you hungry, and when it’s done the leftovers stay for the family because they are too bereaved to bother with cooking. In the Christian circles I’ve been in, this meal after the funeral is almost always a joyous occasion, where people who have come from out of town for the funeral feel free to catch up with the folks they haven’t seen in years.

Here’s an example of funeral dance: