Modern funerary science, compared to that of ancient Egypt, is not new, but its practice came to rural Georgia rather late. Most people were farmers, leading to low population density. Before the railroad building boom of the late 19th century dotted the back country with coal and water stops — some of which became towns — there were few “urban” spots of any sort, mostly county seats, which were small and much fewer in number in 1900. Finally, the economic system yielded limited cash income.
Therefore, established funeral patterns persisted, even saw resurgence during the impoverished days of the Great Depression. There were few funeral professionals. When anyone died, family and friends prepared the body for burial, built a coffin, dug a grave, held some sort of a service, committed the body to the grave and then filled it. As soon after death as possible, the body was “laid out” to assure a sleep-like position before rigor mortis. With adults, this involved use of a table, temporary table, even a door taken off its hinges and laid across saw horses. Bodies were bathed and dressed. Those men who usually were clean-shaven would be shaved.
Then all was ready for the night of “settin’ up with the dead,” essentially a wake. Visitors brought food to reduce the burdens of the grieving family. There was always plenty of food and everyone ate because it would not “keep” long and the next day was time for the funeral. Without embalming, immediate burial was necessary. During that night, the coffin was open and “viewing the dead” was customary.
Somewhere nearby a skilled carpenter or two built a coffin in a familiar pattern sized to fit the deceased. My grandfather, Drewry W. Branch, and his brother-in-law, George Edenfield, were the coffin makers in their community and he kept a supply of heart pine boards under his house so that they would be dry when needed to make coffins. Grandmother, Sarah “Sally” Wilkes Branch, kept a supply of gray muslin and cotton batting to line the inside of coffins. I suspect that Drew and Sally performed these services for their own little ones who “died young.” That was the way they were.
It required lesser skills to dig graves. But they had to be deep and the sides had to be “squared off” out of respect for the dead and self-respect.
Services were often held in the homes of the deceased or at graveside. Pastors served two or three churches simultaneously and might not live in the same place as the deceased. Then the nearest minister might “preach the funeral” or a respected layman might fill in.
At the cemetery, lengths of 2-by-4's or similar supports were laid across the bottom of the grave to make it possible to remove the ropes by which coffins were lowered by hand into the grave. There were no concrete vaults around coffins.
Funeral stories — some steeped in pathos and some humorous — are deeply human. During the Great Depression, Malcolm Williams, brother of Grandfather Rudy Williams, found it necessary to leave his home near Cobbtown to earn money to support his large family. While he was away, his youngest child fell ill with one of the childhood illnesses that took so many lives. My mother, then a young woman, was sent to "help" Aunt Lissie and while she was there, the baby died.
After holding her little one to her breast for a time, Aunt Lissie removed the child’s clothes and began to bathe her. Uncle Malcolm had been summoned, but could not get home before his child’s death. He walked in the door to see his wife bathing their lifeless child, sagged against the door frame and wept.
Granddaddy Rudy was a walker. In all of his 89 years, he owned an automobile for only a short time. He knew the shortest way to go between points A and B and seemed to enjoy walking. Once, while going somewhere, he came upon a little group of people as they approached a family cemetery. Two men were carrying a small coffin between them.
When he joined the familiar neighbors, he learned that their little daughter had died. Family members had made a coffin and dug a grave to which they were taking her. At graveside, the father said, “Mr. Rudy, you know the right words. Would you say some over our child?”
People being people, some funerals had humorous elements. The Rev. J. David Rabun, one of the great preachers of his time and friend of Grandfather Drewry Branch, once told him about a recent funeral in the area. He had in the “cortege” as “Uncle Henry” was transported by wagon via rough country roads to a family cemetery.
The wagon hit a rut, the coffin shifted and the driver said, “Take it easy, Uncle Henry. We’re gonna get you there.”
It became clear that the mourners had medicated their sadness liberally with liquor. When it was time to lower the coffin, two of the men handling the ropes fell into the grave on top of the coffin. Preacher Rabun concluded, “Brother Drew, I think Uncle Henry and I were the only sober ones there.”
Years later in a place not far distant, “Mr. John,” a respected citizen, died. His funeral was held on the front porch of his house that sat on the western ridgeline of the Ohoopee River, with scenic vistas rolling away to the river valley. Two local preachers spoke, the first long enough for both. The second, “Brother George,” was a man of large frame to which a prodigious appetite had added massive fat. His speaking style, loud and long, matched his bulk.
The “congregation” spilled out of the house and yard and across the road into woods, where my father, Oscar Branch, and his brother, Ray, stood. Daddy recalled, “You could have heard Bro. George all the way to the Ohoopee River.” He matched loud with long, covering everything from Genesis to Revelation in his oration.
As shadows lengthened, Uncle Ray observed, “If he doesn’t hush, we aren’t going to get Mr. John in the ground before dark.” They did, but just barely.
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.