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Sitting up with the dead - Ronda Rich

When I visited the funeral home to pay respects to a friend's mother, the deceased was all alone in the viewing room. She was lying in a gleaming cherry casket, surrounded only by flowers.

No one was with her. Not one person.

There's no way on earth that I'd leave my mama alone. After all, she doesn't leave me alone in life, so I'm not leaving her alone in death.

Besides that, I remember when there was a time when the newly dead were not left alone from the moment they were placed in the casket to the time their grave became a new-made mound of dirt.

They called it "sitting up with the dead."

Taking them home was a way of life back then and folks often peppered their stories by saying something like, "I seen him the other night when Elmer lay a corpse."

As best I can tell, this tradition started back in the 19th century when the dead were laid out on beds, awaiting the pine boxes that were being built. Too, the folks, without many doctors in the rural areas, weren't always sure that the dead were really dead. Perhaps they were merely slumbering deeply or in a coma, so they wanted to make sure they were dead and gone before boxing them up. And sometimes, the dead did rise up, not resurrected mind you, but merely renewed from a refreshing sleep.

The tradition then carried through into the 20th century because funeral homes were often just one or two small rooms where technical aspects were performed. There was not space to host a viewing.

But even after funeral homes grew in size, folks often continued to take their beloved ones home, wishing to bid them farewell in the bosom of hearth and family.

Though I was tiny, not yet able to read, I can remember, albeit a bit faintly, trailing along with my parents to visit homes and pay respects to the departed and their families. I recall caskets tucked away in the corner of a living room or in front of a big picture window and the vivid smell of carnations that permeated the air.

The two scenes most vivid to me both involved mothers crazed with grief over the lost of a son. It is something that no matter how tender the young age, you never forget.

The little abode was really a shack. To call it anything else would embellish and gloss over the crippling humbleness of the family that occupied its four tiny rooms with its ragged porch that barely hung onto its tar papered front. The boy was 17, killed when his car took a deep curve too fast. They took him home to mourn him, taking down the Christmas tree so they could squeeze the coffin into the little room.

His mama's wails still haunt me today.

When my parents built their house in 1957, my daddy had been firm in his instructions. "Make that front door big enough to bring a casket through it."

We used it only once. When I was six and my baby nephew died of instant pneumonia at six months old, breaking the hearts of his parents and mine. I remember that tiny casket in front of the picture window, a handsome baby in a blue sweater outfit and his beautiful mother who screamed in agony as she crumbled to the floor.

Not long ago, a friend of mine in Arkansas told me about visiting the antebellum home of a family matriarch. She had been laid out at home per her request.

"It was so sweet and warm," Angie said, adding that she and her husband had discussed that they'd like to do the same thing.

I understand that. Dust to dust, the Bible says. But home-to-home sounds even better to me.

Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of "What Southern Women Know (That Every Woman Should)" and "The Town That Came A-Courtin'."