Several years ago, a friend and co-worker passed away. He worked in the same department that I do. He had been ill and in the hospital for a short period of time previous to his death. It was still hard on the people in our department. This is the first time I remember having a co-worker this close to me die. It was also the first time that I remember going to the visitation and funeral for a co-worker. My friend was also African-American so it would also be my first black funeral.
I was a little nervous. My concern had everything to do with respecting the traditions and customs of my friend’s family. It wasn’t just because they were black. I had gone to funerals and visitations at different parts of the country. Every funeral home seems to have little things that they do just a little bit different. Even funeral homes right down the road from each other would have little things that were unique that everyone in that community seemed to know and accept as normal but someone from another part of the country might not be familiar with. It would be easy to overstep some bound in funeral decorum if you weren’t careful. I was especially sensitive to getting everything right in this situation. This white man going to a funeral for a black man in southern community ( a community with a history of racial problems) couldn’t help but be at least a little concerned that I not do anything to offend. My goal was to blend in as much a possible into normal proceedings.
The boss for our department was out of the country and some of the responsibilities for taking care of things as a representative of our company feel on me. Some of the employees had asked the plant manager for some assistance in providing food for the family gathering after the funeral. He approved and I was asked to pick up the food and pay for it. The food was actually ordered by other people. I just had to go pick it up and pay for it with a company card. The funeral was on a Saturday afternoon. I was supposed to pick up food that morning.
My first stop was at a fast food restaurant to pick up several jugs of tea. After that, I stopped at a spiral sliced ham store for two hams. My last stop was at Walmart. The big box of fried chicken was going to be ready at 11 and I arrived at 10:30. I planned to shop around in other parts of the store to give them plenty of time to have the order ready when I got to the deli in the back of the store. As I walked in, I ran into a co-worker named Evelyn. Evelyn mentioned that I was there to get chicken. I said yes. She asked if I had already picked up the tea and ham. I said yes. I was a little surprised that Evelyn knew so much about what I was supposed to pick up but I really didn’t know who had been involved in arranging what I was getting. She was there to pick up another box of chicken for the same meal. We walked into the store together and then split up. I went to shop for other things and she went to the deli. When I did make it to the deli, she was still there. There had been a mix-up between the two chicken orders but they were well on their way to straightening it out. We chatted briefly while waiting. Finally, Evelyn got her chicken and headed to the front of the store. My chicken order took a while longer but was finally done.
It was when I started walking to the front of the store when I realized how heavy this big box of chicken was. I was making it ok but I really should have gotten a buggy to move the chicken. I walked through the produce section of the store on my way to the checkout and I ran into Evelyn again. I stopped briefly to make small talk again and I told her that I should have gotten a buggy. I was walking away from her and had gotten across the aisle and she shouts at me in a very singsong manner, “Art! I got the lemons!” The very first thing that popped into my mind was “what the hell do black people do with lemons at a funeral?” Very quickly my mind filled with bizarre and disturbing images of the possible uses of lemons, completely ignoring the most obvious one which would be to put them in the iced tea that I had picked up. My expectation to be exposed to new and different traditions was so high that I was open to the possibility that lemons could be part of these practices. It would be years before I could admit my stupidity to Evelyn.
Later at the funeral, I gathered with the rest of the people in our department. They had asked us all to dress alike and we were also asked to be honorary pallbearers. I didn’t know what this meant but I was willing to do anything that assisted and provided comfort to the family. I found out later that this meant that we would be processing into the church BEFORE the family. Because I was the default leader of the department with my boss being out of town, they were looking to me to be their leader. I would be to process into the church before anyone else. All of my concerns about doing the right things were heightened at this point because I would be walking into the church first, ahead of all of the family. We would be walking by the open casket. If there was anything that people traditionally did at this point, I would not know what it was. I have never been to a funeral with honorary pallbearers or with a procession of the family by the open casket at the first of the service. I guess I did ok because no one called me out or laughed at anything I did and it seemed to be similar to what everyone else did.
Since that day, I have been to more funerals for black friends and their families. As a rule, I have found them to be very much like the funerals for my white friends. The most bizarre funeral activities I have seen have been at white funerals but I’m sure that’s just because I’ve been to more of them.
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