One of the programs here with the Folklife Program has been that of our Community Scholars. Our Scholars tend to do some very interesting projects and report back to us on what they’ve found. Recently Carol Shutt, one of our Scholars, did research on the funerary traditions of Harlan County. Take a look at what her project entailed:
Death and the dying process are tough subjects for many people to deal with. As a nurse, later as a social worker and finally as the instructor of a university class on Death, Dying and Bereavement, I’ve had a lot of experience with death. The classes and students I taught educated me even more than my medical professional careers.
I learned from my students that many different funeral traditions exist in Appalachia. I also learned that people continue to believe “everybody does it the same way.” The students shared stories of a wide variety of customs practiced in their families and communities. What was fascinating to me was that they all thought everyone had the same traditions. Even people in the same county had vastly different customs and didn’t realize it.
The end result of my education from my students was a Community Scholar/Oral History Commission project researching the funerary traditions of Harlan County. I chose to do my research in Harlan County because I believed that some of the long-standing traditions were still carried out there. At one time, the county also had people from more than 30 different countries among its residents, recruited to work in the coal mines. I hoped that some of the international traditions would still be carried on by the descendants of these earlier immigrants.
Wakes, digging graves, funerals themselves, burial rituals, music, food, art, flowers, memorials, superstitions and many other traditions were discussed with people from the area. Everyone today says the customs are done out of respect but occasionally I would find someone who would share with me the reason the traditions began in the first place.
It became obvious that geography had a great deal to do with how our customs developed. Indeed, Harlan County is divided by mountain ranges, water sheds and rivers that all influence customs. As you move outward from the city, the older customs are more likely to be found. The economic situation and the season of the year also play a part in how things are handled.
Funeral and burial traditions in other parts of the South — New Orleans, LA; Winston-Salem and Cherokee, NC; Savannah, GA; and Cades Cove, TN; to name a few — show that every one has their own traditions. Some are similar, others are not. Cookbooks exist with area funeral information and recipes for funeral food. Religious beliefs lead to different types of funerals. Ethnicity brings special customs for members of those ethnic groups. Membership in the military or in fraternal orders brings traditions related to those memberships. Technology has made a great difference in our customs. Even terrorism has brought changes to old ways of doing things.
Funerals and cemeteries are fascinating collections of history and give vast amounts of insight into human nature. Some people believe that exploring a cemetery is disrespectful to the dead. My feeling is that monuments are placed on graves so that others will know about your special loved one. An understanding of death and dying traditions helps us to appreciate and respect the people whose graves we visit and helps us to understand why others do what they do, so that we may remain respectful of everyone’s traditions.
Shut has created an exhibit to accompany her project, and it is available for touring at your facility. Please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more. We should have several more Community Scholars with stories to tell about their projects, so check back from time to time to see what they’ve been up to!
Image 1: Flowers made a crepe paper and wax when fresh flowers were not available, courtesy of Chris Jones.
Image 2: "Someone still remembers," courtesy of Carol Shutt.
Image 3: Courtesy of Northcutt and Son Home for Funerals.