Mr. Zachary Berry is a classics major at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia. Mr. Berry, a native South Carolinian, is a blossoming scholar with remarkable writing ability and a sharp intellect. His understanding of the South far surpasses his years. At first glance, the following story is an account of his dear grandmother, and the influence she had over her family. But the story reflects a crucial part of Southern culture that many families of the region often relate to: a respect for past generations and things gone by. Enjoy…
On the twenty-eighth of December, in the year of our Lord two thousand and fourteen, we committed to the earth the body of Hazel Christine Nappier Johnson. Having quitted her earthly house of this tabernacle on the morning of Christmas Eve, she awoke to the joy of her Saviour and the embrace of her beloved Buford who died twenty-one years earlier.
In life, she typified the Southern matriarch. She was ever the lady, devoted to the affairs of her house and performing all the duties of a faithful wife and mother of three. She busied herself with housework, save some of the cooking and cleaning which were done for a time by their maid, Ora May. Their two families were close. Ora May’s children and hers played together, and on Christmas, Granddaddy Buford took them all to get a new pair of shoes. When Ora May died, the whole family went to the funeral. My mother and I called her “Mudder,” which was the best my mother could pronounce “grandmother” as a toddler; it stuck. (I found out after her death that Jefferson Davis’s children called their grandmother by the same name.) She was one of the last of a disappearing generation, one which still held in recent memory the last vestiges of the Old South, and which had a traditional idea of what it meant to be “Southern.”
In death, she represented, to me at least, not merely the loss of a life, but of a lifestyle as well. I mourned not for my griefs only, but for the loss which my home had suffered. It would seem that in our world, it has become a crime to love the South, and our way of life faces on one hand, extinction by dying off, and on the other, inquisition by the progressives. We can either repent of our Southern identity and homogenize with secular culture, or we can be silenced.
But in death, as in life, Grandmamma Hazel typified the Southern experience, and there is hope for a people to be found even in a funeral service. For even in death and the dealing with it, there is clearly evident the soul of a civilization which war and reconstruction could not wrest from our hearts.
Mudder’s death came as somewhat of a surprise to me. I had never known a Christmas without her, and I suppose that, though I knew quite well that her journey was drawing to its close, I assumed she would weather the holiday. I took for granted that she would be there as she always had been; she seemed a constancy in my world. She was a bastion of permanence in a world in which the only constancy seems to be change. But, expected or not, the end came for Grandmamma Hazel.
She had been of a sound mind and able body for eighty-seven years, but a series of strokes had rendered her unable to care for herself towards the end of her eighty-ninth year. She had spent a few weeks in a nursing home, but we knew she was miserable. I saw her last, in her pitiful state, on the twenty-first of December. It came as a shock to see one who was always so self-sufficient become incapacitated. From then I prayed, as my family had been doing for some time, that God would show mercy. And in his providential timing, that mercy came. We were all saddened at her parting, but relieved that at last she had gone to her rest. This sense of peace which governed our hearts came from a sure faith in that eternal hope and understanding as Saint Paul confessedly had, that “to die is gain” for those who are in Christ. This belief is not exclusive to our culture, but it is a hallmark of it.
The faith of the Southern people is central to our identity, and it was prevalent in the funeral service of Grandmamma Hazel. That peace which the Almighty imparts to his own in times of loss dominated the service. There were many tears, but no heart felt the sting of utter despair which plagues those who know not that blessed hope in Christ. We know we shall see her again at the last day. Two preachers, the Reverends John Bolin and Danny Settle, Baptists, conducted the ceremony, speaking of her faith and calling those present to the same.
I too was asked to speak; I recalled times spent with her in my childhood, when I would spend a few summer days at her house. She would tell me all about my Granddaddy Buford, who died four years before my birth, and would enlist my help with the yard work. She always ensured that I was raking the yard correctly, using her incontrovertibly efficient method of short strokes. (All who knew her knew how particular she was.) Then, with some words given to the blessings of the Christian faith, my eulogy concluded.
Mudder’s funeral reflected perfectly this longstanding Christian tradition in the South, which has yet to, and I postulate, shall never disappear into the great homogenization of secular “American” culture.
Another aspect of Southern culture showed itself as the funeral procession made its way to the cemetery. As we slowly rode down Jefferson Davis Highway, cars on either side of the road pulled off and stopped as we passed. Onlookers removed hats, showing respect and empathy on their faces. This is a commonplace tradition in the deep South, and is not practiced at other regions of the union. It is an expression of courtesy, which has long been a pillar of the South, but it is more than even that. There is a mutual understanding between us and them, even though we may not know them personally. This stems from a sense of place, of home, which we share as Southerners. We have lived our lives here. We were born here, raised here; we have laughed here, and cried, and loved, and remembered. There is a faint spirit of mourning and loss for each other, and it could be seen on their faces. They may not know the deceased from Adam’s housecat, but what they do know is that someone from home has died, and that is cause enough for a moment of respect. Some things are more important than making it to the grocery store as quickly as possible.
We Southerners hold this land dear; our forebears raised a living from this soil, fought to keep it free, and are buried in it. Our commitment is as sincere as theirs was, and that is our common bond. In essence, the same spirit that drove our grandfathers to the battlefields at Gettysburg and Chancellorsville is what drove those people off the road as we conveyed the body of Grandmamma Hazel to Graniteville. To her, home was not merely Edgar Street; it was a people and a place where existed the only way of life she had ever known. Progressivism has yet to erase from the South the values that made this place home for Hazel.
The last example of surviving Southern culture which was illustrated in Mudder’s death is a blatant one. After I and several others had carried the casket to the grave, we sang “Amazing Grace” and began to disperse. Then, as we stood around and fellowshipped afterwards, there was talk of secession at the graveside. Several men, myself included, stood by the grave as people began to file out of the cemetery; conversation ensued, and we discussed what could be done to remedy the ills of the union. The consensus view among us was that secession, that most Southern of concepts rooted in the Jeffersonian political tradition, was a fine, albeit far off, answer. That field was riddled with the graves of men who had pursued that notion to the uttermost, including Mudder’s own grandfather. The resolve of Southern men survives still.
Even in the loss of a family, there can be found hope for a people, a family in its own right; for there is much which is still Southern about the South, when the evidence is examined. Here, we still value the permanent things – our faith, our home, and our history – and I pray that we never relent in our stalwart devotion to these dearest principles, lest Hazel’s South should pass away.
-Zachary Edward Berry