I come from a long line of religious Birmingham News subscribers. Growing up, I read the comics everyday. My parents worked the crossword puzzle everyday. My grandmother, Nonna, Nola Wells, read the obituaries every day. If she remotely knew someone who had passed, she would call up her sister, Shelby Jean and they would go to the viewing. “Don’t you remember him? He married Mark’s second wife after they split up. He came to the Barbecue one year.” I’m pretty sure on more than one occasion they didn’t know the person at all. I’m also fairly sure no one noticed, and the family wouldn’t have been upset anyway. I went with her a couple of times, but I knew the people that had died.
Funerals and wakes were time honored rituals in the deep south. People used to take the body home for the viewing, that’s what a wake is. But it was more than a viewing, it had all the trappings of a normal family get together, like food, laughter, games, story swapping. And of course the body. You had to have the body. How rude would it be to have a get together celebrating someone’s life and not invite that person? People took it so seriously that they would set up with the dead all night long. How disrespectful would it be to leave Granny in the funeral home all by herself? Most of the time, the wake would just last til way into the morning, that way no one had to stay up by themselves.
One night in about 1968, Nonna and her mother, Granny, Ila Clementine Brasher, had been to a late night wake for Uncle Doss, in Sylacauga, a good fort five minutes from where they lived. Granny was wearing one of those big fur hats that you see ladies wearing in old movies. Wakes were formal affairs. Oddly enough they weren’t even related to Uncle Doss, but that didn’t matter, they knew him. It was late, about three in the morning when they finally got on the road. A police officer pulled them over because it wasn’t often that you saw a couple of nicely dressed ladies driving through a rough neighborhood at three o’clock in the morning. “Ma’am, is everything ok?” Said the concerned officer. Nonna begin to explain that they were on their way home from a wake when Granny, in her big fur hat, leaned over from the passenger seat to make eye contact with the policeman and said with authority, “Young man, we have been setting up with the dead.” This was all the explanation the police officer needed.