I love funeral food! Evidently so does Kate Campbell, who gives tribute to it in her song, “Funeral Food.” It’s worth a listen. She enumerates the usual—green bean casserole, chicken, cake, and pie, bemoaning that the dearly departed made the best chocolate cake.
When my father died 33 years ago, we received such abundant food that we ran out of places to put it. But my favorite was sausage on biscuits; once I tried one, I was smitten. I wasn’t hungry but knew I needed to eat, and that to me was the most practical of food gifts. No plate or utensils needed, but I got protein and carbs that were quick and tasty. I cannot number the times since then that I’ve taken sausage biscuits to a grieving family. (If you do this, be sure it’s homemade sausage or Tennessee Pride Sage.)
In the past two weeks, I have experienced two similar events for the first time: the burial of someone’s ashes. (As an aside, the cremations I’ve been familiar with usually involved taking the cremains home for the mantel or bedroom. One friend would carry his wife’s ashes around the property, talking about improvements he’d made. Another would put her dog’s ashes under the bed during a storm because that’s where the fearful pooch always went.)
The first was local because Marg, who lived to be almost 101, had lived most of her life in Fort Thomas. Her cremains were buried at her husband’s grave in nearby Evergreen Cemetery, where many Confederate soldiers and famous people are buried. The family allowed us to attend the small gathering in the chapel because, as our neighbor for 18 years, she was like another mother and grandmother to our family. Her son-in-law read some scriptures and her son and daughter spoke about some of their memories and the characteristics of their mother. It was sweet. Then the daughter took the cardboard box containing the ashes to the grave, we heard a few more scriptures and a prayer, and we left for the United Methodist Church “memorial room.”
There we found food provided by the church ladies. It wasn’t Kate’s traditional menu, but the potato salad, finger sandwiches, and crudités were delicious. And the fabulous desserts were bountiful.
As we sat at tables and nibbled, different ones stood to tell stories about Marg and her husband, Marshall. Many were tributes to her kindness, especially in mentoring young teachers; others were funny, focusing on her frugality. I told about her bringing over a large container of Jello when Steve had his wisdom teeth out, and how she often brought us her 6-Week Bran Muffins, especially when they’d been in her refrigerator for close to six weeks and she needed to use the batter. She was a delightful neighbor and friend, and obviously she was a friend to many others. Her children expected very few to show up and they were pleasantly surprised at the crowd. It didn’t surprise me in the least.
The second experience was the funeral of my Uncle Ollie at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Nashville, Tennessee. It also was started in the mid-1800s and has many Confederate soldiers and famous people buried there. I was hoping for a similar story-telling time at the 10 a.m. – noon gathering at the funeral home that is part of the cemetery, but I was warned that my Aunt Mina did not want that. She just wanted to greet people, so she did.
For me, it was a great time to visit with my other TEN aunts and uncles. Yes, my mother, who died at age 85 in 2009, has six living siblings and four still have their spouses. It’s remarkable. They all, ages 80-97, live on their own and within five to thirty minutes of each other. I have good genes.
Seeing cousins I rarely see was also a treat. Interesting to see how we’ve all changed as we aged. At least we still recognize each other! And I was glad to get to introduce Kelsey to a second cousin she hadn’t met. They hit it off immediately.
A little before noon, we all headed to our cars and drove to the location for the burial. The tent accommodated about 20 people, so I figured Ollie’s brother and Mina’s siblings would fill it. Some of them stayed in their cars due to the uneven ground, so everyone over 80 got a seat. That’s even funny for me to say. (At our church of around 100-120, we have only two people over 80.)
Since Uncle Ollie’s brother, a Lutheran minister, was not able to conduct the service, Walt Leaver, son of Uncle Ollie’s best friend, read scripture and spoke about his friend Ollie, whom he’d known all his life. It was just right.
About 45-50 of us gathered there for the informal but structured graveside service. My brothers led the songs: “O, God, Our Help in Ages Past,” “My Hope is Built on Nothing Less,” and “A Mighty Fortress,” appropriate since he was a Lutheran and this is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s “95 Theses.” (When “How Great Thou Art” was suggested, Aunt Mina was horrified. “That’s not a hymn!” she said. Guess she only wanted something three or four hundred years old.) Uncle Ollie was a considerate, witty, intelligent man who endeared himself to anyone who knew him. He’d made many friends of all ages in his 91 years. She expected very few to show up and was pleasantly surprised at the crowd. It didn’t surprise me in the least.
Afterward we gathered at the home of my cousin Susan, where tables and chairs were set up in the beautiful back yard. The food was indoors; by then it was past 1 p.m., and I was really hungry. When I went in, my Aunt Jackie said, “Have one of these Krystal burgers. They’re delicious when they’re hot!” So I did, and soon Steve ate one also. The spread there was delicious but different, because most of the main food had been bought from a local restaurant: Krystal burgers, ham and biscuits from Cracker Barrel, and barbecue from a local place. And potato chips. The homemade slaw was excellent, and everything went together well, but I was surprised at how little was homemade. When I thought about the ages of most of the people who came, I realized this was the best we could do.
Then I saw the dessert table. Wow! All homemade and all wonderful, especially Aunt Jackie’s famous pecan pie. But the other pies and cakes and cookies were outstanding as well. I was relieved. We’d all done what we could to uphold the family tradition of delicious food at a funeral. Even if it was actually a memorial service.
I’m glad Kate wrote her song when cremation and memorial services were not as popular. “Memorial Service Food” just wouldn’t have the same ring to it. But I love the food we share with loved ones, whatever the occasion. Looking around that group of all my beloved cousins and aunts and uncles was a special treat.
So going to Nashville and back (552 miles) in one day was totally worth it. Especially since Steve and Kelsey did the driving.