Some of my friends on social media are Christian, some Atheists, some Muslim, some Buddhist, and others Wiccan, but, no matter what your beliefs, having rituals—traditions—at a time of death is helpful. Recently, a favorite uncle passed away. He was prepared. He’d been suffering for a long time, bedridden, and was ready to go. But it didn’t make his death any easier to accept. I wasn’t able to attend the funeral, and I missed out on that important, and healing, time of grieving.
My family has lived amid the mountains near the Kentucky/Virginia border for eight generations. Most of the family still resides only a few minutes east of the Breaks Interstate Park. There are roads, ridges, and towns named after my relatives. And there are many family cemeteries: Colley, Anderson, Edwards, Counts, and Sutherland, just to name a few. I qualify to inhabit any one of them, but the one I’ll probably be buried in is the Anderson Cemetery, where my uncle was buried.
The cemetery is part of my grandparents’ old homestead. It sits on top of Edwards Ridge, at the end of Morgan Anderson (my maternal great-grandfather) Lane. I remember playing there as a child, scared to walk past the tall yews that created a symbolic boundary between field and cemetery. When I finally became brave enough to cross over that imaginary line, what struck me was how many children were buried there. And, what struck me even further, as I looked out over the headstones, was realizing all those people were related to me. There is no greater sense of belonging, or kinship.
Although I was born there, we moved away when I was young but we visited every year, usually August, before school started and after the harvest. We always went home with glass jars of beans, apples, blackberries, beets (my love of beets reaches back to when I helped my grandmother can batches of them using a big tub over an open fire in the backyard), and other goodies. Uncle Bruce would always make sure he took us to “The Breaks” when we came to visit. It is a stunningly beautiful place. The vistas lift the viewer up and out of the ordinary. To paraphrase Joseph Campbell, it is a sacred space where you can find yourself again and again. (Who needs cathedrals?)
My uncle would also catch the horses as they grazed in the field and saddle them so we could spend an afternoon riding. Family was important to him so, when we went for our rides, he’d point out the old house and stables where our great-great-grandparents had lived, or where this-or-that had happened, and tell us a little about our past. He’d take us by his “granny’s” (my great-grandmother) and made sure we visited with her. Keep in mind, he was only sixteen at the time. He was wise beyond his years.
Growing up in the north, I could never reconcile the misconceptions and the disparaging jokes lobbed at the people of Appalachia. My family was nothing like what I saw on Saturday Night Live skits. Yes, many were poor, but not all. There were coal miners, but there were also judges, doctors, congressmen, businessmen, and teachers. But, more than that, they were (and are) good, honest, intelligent, and caring people. I couldn’t be prouder of who, and where, I’m from.
As I said, just as my family’s roots grow deep in the Appalachian soil, so do their traditions. When someone is on their deathbed, the family usually gathers ‘round and tells stories and sings songs. Things have changed over the years and, instead of being at home, my uncle was in hospice, but his family managed to be there and I’m sure there was still storytelling and singing—a warm and loving sendoff for my uncle. I’m told he was able to articulate his wishes for the funeral: where his “spot” would be in the cemetery, who he’d like to speak, who he’d like to sing and what song.
Here’s his choice of song. I think it’s appropriate, no matter if you’re Christian, Atheist…or whatever. Listening to it, I was able to mourn in private. I wish I could have been there to be part of a family tradition, no matter how sad. There couldn’t be anything more important than celebrating family—in life or in death.
I love and miss you, Uncle Bruce. Now, Go Rest High On That Mountain.