Pine Mountain Settlement School
Series: 09 Staff/Personnel
Celia Cathcart [Holton]
CELIA CATHCART “A Funeralizing on Robber’s Creek”
TAGS: Celia Cathcart ; funeralizing ; funerals ; rituals ; Appalachian funerals ; Cindy Cornett ; religion ; death ; community ; Hard Shell Baptist ; Outlook magazine ; Hard-Shell Baptist ;
Holton, Celia Cathcart. “A Funeralizing on Robber’s Creek,” The Outlook: An Illustrated Weekly Journal of Current Life,” Vol. 127, January – April 1921
A FUNERALIZING ON ROBBER’S CREEK
BY CELIA CATHCART HOLTON
PECULIAR to the Southern mountains is the custom of funeralizing. When a man dies, he is buried with no ceremony whatever, with not even much mourning on the part of the relatives. Ministers are few and scattered, there are no means of prompt communication with them and with interested friends at a distance, so only the demands of decency are complied with. After several members of a family have died, however, a pittance from the meager income is saved up for the purpose of hiring several ministers to conduct a funeral meeting, an elaborate event which more than atones for the apparent neglect.
Thus it happened that Cindy Cornett and her two sons had been dead several years before her daughter, Mary, “norrated it round” that there was going to be a funeralizing in the schoolhouse on Robber’s Creek the third Sunday in October. The teachers from the settlement school [Pine Mountain Settlement School] across the mountain were especially urged to come. “Git up at candlelight, come over afore breakfast, and stay all day; now do, fer I’m aimin’ to have a good dinner that day, and you’re jist bound to come!” Mary’s invitation was too attractive to be resisted. We had our breakfast before leaving the school, however, as making a six-mile climb on an empty stomach is no fun.
We reached the little white schoolhouse a few minutes after ten o’clock. Mary came running out to meet us, solemnly resplendent in a black funeral dress and a stiff white bonnet. “Come right in. We’re havin’ sech purty singin’.” Having heard the mournful sounds long before we reached the meeting, we agreed that the singing left nothing to be desired.
The room was almost filled. The day was warm, so most of the men were sitting around in their shirt sleeves, although some were giving vent to their reverence by wearing vests. The smallest children were crying, already weary of being kept indoors; their elder brothers and sisters were running in and out of the room, the boys occasionally sitting down in a row against the wall to see who could spit the farthest, the winner being the acknowledged best man of them all. That the women were prepared for the affair could be seen not only by their hats, which gave evidence of all the styles from the early eighties on down, but also by their unusually distressed faces.
The platform at the end of the schoolroom held a couple of tables, upon which sat buckets of water. To these the children, and grown-ups as well, made frequent pilgrimages, all using the common dippers and carefully pouring back into the bucket any drops that might be left. The spring which supplied the drinking water was a half-mile away, and the day was warm. Around the
wall sat the dignitaries of the meeting— the husband and father of the deceased, the officiating minister and the two “precious brethren” from neighboring counties, and the pillars of the church of both sexes who were gifted with the loudest voices. All their tunes were mournful, never ending on the keynote, and were sung with many quaverings and breaks of voice. At the conclusion of one song, a good old sister made her way up to the platform, selected a chair near the front, and sat down, removing her bonnet in order to cool off. She had probably climbed a mountain to get to the meeting. The high back-comb slid took from her tight knot of hair, and down it fell. Carefully she combed it out, as unconcerned as if that were the conventional thing to do in church.
When the song service was finally ended, the preachers consulted together at great length as to what they should do next and who should do it; it fell to the lot of the officiating minister to pray, so he announced that we should all “git down” when we prayed, for all examples in the Bible proved that people should fall “prostrate on the ground.” The prayer was long, punctuated by much spitting and blowing of nose on the part of the minister; many instructions were given the Lord as to whom, what, and how to bless; a little refrain, with a tune, of “O Lord, bless the brotherly love, O Lord, the love, O Lord, that flows from heart to heart, O Lord, from heart to heart,” entered regularly every fifth or sixth sentence. When our knees were almost paralyzed, he stopped, arose, mopped his face, and began his “remarks.” He read the three-obituaries. The woman had left satisfaction behind, having lived a “considerable” Christian life, which was later read as a “consistent” Christian life; the first son had led a wild life “atter the fashion of most young men;” the second son had been shot, and some thought he had died praying. Each reading was greeted with sobs and groans from the mourners. The preacher then talked at length about the sureness of death and about that pale “figger who had his finger, cold and clammy, even then, at that very moment, upon our shoulders.” In the course of time this minister gave way to Brother Osbourne, who expounded once more upon death’s certainty, using as a text the story of the Passover, with much emphasis upon the blood upon the door. He was a firm believer in recognition after death and shouted to us that we should know Cindy when we reached heaven. Then he drew out his watch and, having talked thirty-five minutes “by his time,” said he would let some of the other brethren talk. We sang another hymn before giving the next man his chance. His theme was similar to that of the others. He described the way the two robbers looked on Calvary as they were “expanded between heaven and earth.” He worked himself into such a frenzy as he danced around the platform that the ends of his long, curled-tip mustache fanned the air.
The theology of this service was typical of all the Hard-Shell Baptist teachings in this section of the mountains. There is no relation whatever between creed and actual living. Morality has no connection with religion. In fact, it seems that mountain people have no outlet for their passions, no chance for a legitimate excitement which every normal being demands, save in these two extremes, paradoxical as it may sound, immorality and religious fanaticism. Some people choose one outlet. some the other; it is not unusual for some to choose both.
The exhorting which had figured strongly in each sermon now began ; have its effect. One “dear dyin’ sinner” came to the altar, while another lay across a desk, her face hot with tears. groaning: “O Lord, have mercy on my pore soul!” The people on the platform were shouting, crying, and shaking hands. One tall, spare old lady, with spectacles on the end of her nose and with hat resting on the back of her neck, got so happy that she danced about the platform, spinning round and round like a top, keeping time by clapping her hands. Another showed her zeal by throwing herself backwards from the edge of the platform, trusting to luck that some one would catch her; fortunately, some one always did, although a time or two I grew very nervous. The excitement at last subsided, the people sat down, and the ministers produced bread and a bottle of wine preparatory to serving the sacrament. From the odor, I should say that grape juice was not used. After this ceremony was performed, with no word as to to significance, water was brought in and towels were unwrapped for the foot washing. The men sat in a double rows facing each other, at one end of the platform, the women the same way at the other end. The first woman tied a towel around her waist with strings sewed on the towel. She then washed the feet of the woman next to her, dried them on the towel, shook hands, gave the towel to this woman, who then performed the same service for the first woman. The men did the same way. so that, in the end, each person had his feet washed and had washed some one elses. This process was accompanied by much shouting and weeping, with an occasional hymn. As there were no boots, one of the ministers lined off the hymns, reading a line, which was then sung by the congregation, then reading another, and so on. One man kept his mouth wide open while the line was being read, so that he was in position when the time came to sing again. When the foot-washing was over, one preacher’s voice gave way entirely, so that he was reduced to silence.
As it was now about half-past two, the officiating minister decided to end the morning service. He assured the “fotched-on folks in the meetin’ ” (there being none others than the two of us from the settlement) that they could know “they wasn’t a bit tireder than he was.” With that the meeting was dismissed. We went home with Mary toa splendid dinner in a clean little cabin on the side of a hill. When we thanked her for having been so kind to us, comparative strangers as we were, she answered, “Law me, honey, I hain’t never seed a stranger!” That was my sermon for the day, for to me it was far more helpful, far more Christlike, than anything the funeralizing had produced.
CELIA CATHCART PHOTOGRAPHS
CELIA CATHCART “A Funeralizing on Robber’s Creek”