Dancing with the Dead
When I was about eleven or twelve, my great aunt passed away in her sleep. She was my father’s mother’s sister, and one of the favorites of the family – the center of our “mountain side” of the family. She and Grandma had been exceptionally close, and so it was we were piled in the family station wagon for the drive into North Georgia for the wake. At the time I knew very little of the Irish side of our roots, and the events of this day would come to be one of the defining moments of my life, the first doorway into a tradition and culture I have come to embrace with all of my physical, emotional, and intellectual being.
The details of how my father’s family came to America are hazy. Genealogical research traces the names of the paternal branch of the family tree to the northwest of Ireland, but actual records are sparse or have long since disappeared. Some in the family, speculate that we came over in one of Olglethorpe’s ships for the “worthy poor” – convicts from English debtor prisons, in other words – but I never managed to find any documentation to support the idea. In any event, come to Georgia they did, settling in the low mountains of the north, farming the valleys initially, then shifting to raising chickens or, more recently, becoming modestly successful as auto mechanics. The bulk of the family stayed physically close to one another, with houses often a stone’s throw or a country stroll apart, thus ensuring they would remain a closely knit group. “Aunt Birdie”, as we knew her, was the centerpiece of the lot, and the house she shared with her husband Albert, was smack dab in the middle of the clan’s domain.
On the day of her funeral, we arrived at about 10:00 AM, disembarked, and meandered towards the house where the family had prepared the wake. Other relatives were already present, and there was a general slowness to the procession as we stopped to greet great uncles, aunts, nieces, nephews, second and third cousins, and their attendant wives, husbands, girlfriends, boyfriends, and pets, exchanging pleasantries and sympathies with all. Grandma walked particularly slowly, breaking into tears several times, and stopping to compose herself after each. As we kids fidgeted nervously, uncomfortable not only with her tears but the endless parade of introductions to strangers, Dad would gently nudge her forward. Ahead of us, I could see people moving into and out of the house and assumed their passage was due to the fact that it would be where the food was found.
I was partly right, there was plenty of food within the kitchen, but the living room had been converted into the place where Aunt Birdie’s body would be displayed for the whole of the day, and where the festivities, if you want to call them that, would occur.
When you’re a child, death holds a particular fascination. You’re too young to feel the enormity of its impact – you see the tears of the affected, but true emotion eludes you as the deceased are generally people you knew only briefly, if at all. Children focus instead on the mechanics of death: the funeral, wondering how heavy a casket may be, how long it took to dig a grave (especially in the rock hard Georgia red clay), and what will be done with all the leftover dirt. When I walked into that house and saw my great aunt’s body on a table in her casket, the first thing that went through my mind was, “Why, in God’s name, is she in here?”
The other kids my age were equally intrigued, and it wasn’t long before the inevitable tests of familial courage were underway. “I dare you to touch her,” said one of the cousins, and because I was ashamed to do otherwise, I crept up to the casket and did so. It was the coldness of her skin that struck the most, but its paper-like dryness and the way it hung slackly on her face drove home the fact that she was no longer “there” anymore – her body was just empty. It was the first time I had ever touched a dead body.
It was short time later that the wake proper began. A brief service was held, with the local preacher delivering the rites, and one by one we moved to the casket to pay our last respects. Some spent a while looking down upon the face of the departed, as if projecting a living visage from their memories upon the lifeless slate. When it came our turn, we walked with Grandma to her dead sister’s side, and gently, hesitantly, placed a hesitant and brief kiss upon her cheek. When the last of the mourners had passed her side, the casket lid was lowered shut, and I took my last glimpse of a great aunt I had actually come to love.
Next all the relatives were corralled into the kitchen so that mountains of food could be parceled out. Folks took their seats in a series of folding chairs lining the walls of the room where the casket still sat. We ate in silence, with occasional murmurs exchanged over the quality of the chicken, or the sweetness of the year’s corn. As plates were cleared, the stories began. Birdie’s brothers and sisters stood one by one to tell the stories of her life, how she played as a child, courted as a teen, and settled into her marriage with Albert. They told of her joys and sorrows, laughter and tears, and a few shared how she had been a source of inspiration at difficult times within their lives. Mention was made of her favorite songs, and one of the younger sisters offered up a tender rendition of a favorite, in a high soprano, voice quavering with emotion. More songs were sung, at first unaccompanied, lone voices acting as both instrument and narrative. A fiddle was produced, and with a poorly tuned piano playing the lead, and a bucket and washboard providing the tempo, a series of jigs and reels were played. Some men wandered back to the storage shed and returned with a detached door that was placed on the floor. One of the younger cousins stepped aboard and began to dance, feet tapping out an initially slow rhythm that grew faster and faster as his footwork grew more and more complex. It was truly magnificent; the epitome of the biblical joyful noise. Here in this house of sorrow, a celebration of life had mounted a ferocious challenge on death himself, and looked to be carrying the day
When it came time to leave, we said our farewells to the exhausted and flushed kinfolk, making vague promises to keep in touch that everyone knew would somehow never manage to be kept. We piled back into the station wagon, and drove slowly around the back of the house rather than try to back up to turn the car around. As we pulled around, I noticed my uncle Albert, now newly widowed, sitting alone on the step outside the back door. His head was in his hands, and by the shaking of his shoulders, I knew that he was weeping. He was totally alone. I kept my eyes on him the entire time we drove past, and I suddenly understood the awesome power of grief: we mourn not for the absence of the person that is gone, but rather the absence of the love they have taken with them. In those few seconds of seeing my uncle’s private pain, I knew what loss would be like.
I have never forgotten this.
Caoineadh Cu Chulainn – Davey Spillane