Death in the South


One Sunday morning I came breezing into Sunday School class, after having been out of town for a week. My sister grabbed me and hugged me tightly to welcome me home.

“Oh, I’m so glad you’re back!” Louise shrilled happily. She hugged me again. “I missed you.”

I grinned. “Well, you wouldn’t know it. You didn’t call me one time to check on me. When I was in Ireland for a week, you worried incessantly. But when I went to Los Angeles for a week, you didn’t call once.” I laughed. “And everybody knows that L.A. is much more dangerous than Ireland.”

She didn’t miss a beat. She said the first thing that came into her mind and everybody knows that the first thing that pops out of someone’s mouth is the gospel truth.

“That’s because I knew I would have an easier time getting your body back from L.A. than I would from Ireland.”

She meant it. When I travel, she thinks in terms of, ‘If she dies there, how much trouble will it be to get her home for the funeral?’ For Southerners, that isn’t crazy, it’s perfectly sane. It’s a normal train of thought.

See, in the South, we have this strange but comfortable relationship with death. It’s coming one day for all of us so we figure we should just grab it and plop it down in the midst of our lives and discuss it on a daily basis.

Growing up, I knew our house was in a real mess if Mama said, “We’ve got to get this house cleaned up. If someone died and people had to come into this house, it’d be a shame and a disgrace.”

She was thinking in terms of mourners and casserole bearers.

Toward the end of her life, she made purchases based on how much longer she figured she’d live.

“If I knew I was gonna live long enough to get enough use out of it, I’d buy me a new bedroom suite. But as much as one costs, I don’t have enough years left to get my money’s worth.”

“Mama, if you want one, just buy it,” I’d say after yet another of my sighs over such talk.

“No way. I ain’t wasting my money on no such. I’ll just make do with what I’ve got.”

As an aside, let me assure you that she did die, using the same bedroom furniture that she and Daddy started house with. Believe me when I say that she did, in fact, get her money’s worth out of it. It was all used up.

I hear such talk regularly. When Karen moved into a new house a few years ago, she called to promise, “This is the last move I make on this earth. The next time I move, I’ll be moving to my heavenly home.”

I am quite accustomed to kin folks who are frequently planning their funerals by choosing preachers, songs, scriptures and pall bearers. One keeps a running list of preachers to “stand over me when I’m gone” but the list changes regularly based on which preacher has gotten crossways with her. Another is always on the look-out for a dress to be buried in.

Daddy was so determined to have a particular hymn sung at his funeral that he stored a dozen songbooks on a shelf for over 20 years while he waited for death to call. Louise, proprietor of all things funeral in our family, went straight to the closet the night he died and pulled out the books.

Once I waited with Mama in the emergency room as she suffered with vertigo. “If I die, go straight to my house and make my bed up. I don’t want nobody comin’ in, seein’ my room in such a mess.”

That’s normal, right?

[Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of “What Southern Women Know About Flirting” and “The Town That Came A-Courtin’.” Her newest book is “What Southern Women Know about Faith.” She lives near Gainesville, Ga. Sign up for her newsletter at]