Is Life Possible Before Death:  Reflections on “Decoration Day” in the Deep South

By John Crider

“There’ll be no sorrows there No more burdens to bear No more sickness and no more pain No more parting over there … What a day that will be when my Jesus I shall see … What a day, glorious day that will be.” [2] 

Such were the words of the opening hymn of the 2021 annual Decoration Day service I attended at a small church in rural North Alabama. Out of sheer obligation, a subtle guilt trip meticulously executed by my mother, and fear of being shamed by my aging aunts for missing yet another Decoration—missing Decoration was anathema among my people and was tantamount to missing the funeral of a family patriarch—I loaded up mom (and her wheelchair) early on a Spring Sunday morning and made the trek to the other side of the neighboring county. On arrival, we rolled down the aisle to the very front of the church and created a new front row so as not to block the aisle. We had 50-yard-line seats.

Decoration is a long-standing tradition in the deep South among rural churches with adjoining cemeteries. The event serves as a family-church reunion of sorts with dinner on the grounds and sometimes a gospel music sangin’. Some Decorations feature Fa-So-La[3] attended by singers traveling from far and wide. The festivities center on a memorial service for those of the church and family who have passed on into Glory. On this one day of the year, these rural churches, many filled with aging congregations with waining attendance and struggling to survive, are packed with former members, wayward members coming to pay tribute to MeeMaw and PawPaw, and children and grandchildren returning home from the four winds.

This congregation knew no fear. In the midst of a global pandemic and in overt violation of CDC guidelines, these congregants confronted the Coronavirus head on—perhaps a subliminal desire to join their loved ones prematurely or maybe even a demonstration of solidarity against the governmental Beast motivated total disregard for the deadly pathogen. While an unshakable belief in hope of life after death was evidenced by the group, belief in a virus that has killed millions is conspiratorial and vaccination is voodoo. There were no masks in sight. Amidst this memorializing of death, the realities of life were being ignored.

After the opening hymn, those who had made previous arrangements with the song leader, filed down the aisle one-by-one and sang a solo in memory of their deceased relative of choice. The only qualification was that the soloist be able to hold a microphone—evidenced by one three-year-old who was just learning to talk, but who could scream-sing “In the Highways In the Hedges” with precision. Selections included everything from Stamps Baxter and the Broadman hymnal to straight-up country music (that on any other given Sunday would be considered inappropriate for “big church”). The testimony before each song always included a comment noting “This was one of Mamma’s favorite songs,” etc. immediately followed by the refrain, “Y’all pray for me as I sing.”

Once the prearranged “official” solos (as printed in the bulletin) were completed, those who had not made prior arrangements with the song director were given opportunity to pay homage in song. The talent wavered between bad and worse and, unfortunately, the sincerity of the singer often did not correlate with the quality of the performance. Many of the selections were interrupted by tears and gasps reminiscent of Briscoe Darlin of Andy Griffith lore. I found myself wishing someone would channel Charlene, saying, “We can’t sing that one, Paw, because that one makes you cry.”

The song service concluded with the song director bringing a powerful and touching rendition of “It Is Well With My Soul,” with not a dry eye in the house, including mine

Members of the congregation, now primed for the memorial part of the service, were then invited to the altar to commemorate their loved one by lighting a memorial candle—a rural version of All Saints Day. At least 100 14-inch candles (approximately doubling the number of the congregants) were arranged on a four-row tiered table staged in front of the pulpit. The altar was flanked by two teenaged acolytes, each holding a 60-inch brass candlelighter extender with bell snuffer and a manual slider to keep the flame burning by slowly extending the wick. The detailed description of the acolytes and their duties was required because, unlike most liturgical churches which employ candle-bearers in most services, the use of an acolyte as such is unbeknownst in most of these rural churches. However, in this one service, these churches make up for their usual lack of liturgy, which is often viewed with suspicion by most Baptists.

As each honoree’s name (published in the bulletin) was read, family members filed down to the altar to light their memorial candle. Since most of the attendees are devout back-row Baptists, the service was lengthened to accommodate the added time needed to make the trek down the aisle, requiring the organist to play at least four extra hymns, being sure to play each verse—not even skipping the middle verses as most Baptists are accustomed. Those who had neglected to add their deceased relative’s name to the published list were then invited to participate. During this quite lengthy ceremony, the organist dug deep into the hymnal, playing every funeral song that even remotely mentions heaven or the sweet by-and-by. At this point during the processional, any remaining dry eye in the congregation welled with tears.

The only qualification for one to light a candle was their being able to make it down the aisle (by any means—cane, walker, wheelchair and, in one case, being carried down the aisle, reminiscent of an injured player being assisted off the field). Graduation from preschool or even the ability to hold the flaming torch unassisted was not a prerequisite. Minimum height also was not a requirement.

After all, the candle-lighter extender is 60 inches long.

One-by-one many approached the altar:

  • Families, four-deep, vying for hand position on the candle lighting extender, each simultaneously attempting to coordinate movement of the flame toward the candle wick;  children, wielding the open flame like a sparkler on the Fourth of July;
  • Elderly widows and widowers, trudging down the aisle — walker or cane in hand — letting go of their stabilizing implement, now wobbling in front of the table of flames, making a valiant effort to memorialize their spouse. All the while, the angst of the congregation built as if awaiting a multi-car NASCAR pile-up while simultaneously hoping the octogenarian did not lose his or her balance and fall into the inferno — hence, prematurely becoming a part of next year’s memorial service; one member with Parkinson’s disease and tremors so coarse that three candles are lit in the process, two unintentionally;
  • Seniors with eyesight so poor that the 60-inch candlelighter extender took the flame beyond the focal point of their glasses such that they were attempting to light the space between the candles;
  • Some, even after employing a two-handed approach, gave up in frustration with wicks that were bent down over the side of the candle, requiring the usher to take control;
  • One elderly man dragging an oxygen tank of highly combustable gas — and in an answer to the prayers of all in the building — suddenly realized that he needed to remove his oxygen before approaching the table so that the entire congregation did not explode and become the theme for next year’s memorial service. The dilemma of his decision became apparent only as he was gasping for breath, desperately returning to his oxygen tank deposited by the front pew. As I noted the bluish cyanosis appearing around his lips, I began reviewing my CPR protocol in order to avoid this poor fellow’s being added to the list in next year’s bulletin.

About 50 candles into the service, the candlelighter extender on the left burned out. The wick was exhausted, someone having forgotten to reload the wick. I quickly looked to the acolyte on the right. He had about an inch-and-a-half to go, probably only enough for five more candles with at least 40 more candles in arrears. Efforts by the acolytes to hasten the lighting process among the arthritic parishioners were of no avail. As the flame of the second candlelighter extender extinguished, I breathed a sigh of relief as I had been looking upward during the service wondering when the ceiling tiles would buckle under the stress of the heat.

The acolytes bumbled around for what to do. As I was about to suggest they make an appeal to the smokers in the crowd, one of the acolytes located the miniature propane trigger-lighter with a two-inch barrel which had been used to light the candlelighter extenders, and the service proceeded. (In retrospect, an appeal to the smokers in the crowd would both have solved the immediate problem and offered an ironic act of redemption to those tobacco users of the congregation whom “we ain’t been too sure about” since smoking amongst Fundamentalists approximates a cardinal sin bringing one closer to the fires of hell.) Compared with the miniature two-inch barrel propane trigger-lighter, the importance of the 60-inch candlelighter extender became obvious when the congregation collectively realized that the decision to start the ceremony by lighting the candles beginning with the front row on the table appeared to have been a choice not well thought out. Awkward moments occurred between each person as the acolyte struggled to relight the trigger lighter which inevitably dissipated as the trigger was released. Participants contorted their bodies with awkward arm extensions and bowed torsos as they attempted to reach for the fourth row with the two-inch lighter while attempting to avoid a taste of hell on their forearms from the candles on the first three rows. Perhaps as a result of repeatedly relighting the trigger-lighter between candles or, perhaps, an epiphany akin to the burning bush, one of the ushers offered one of the previously lit candles to the next participant, providing an additional 14 inches of extension and calming the fear and trepidation of those challenged with lighting the back row of candles.

While the show did go on using a previously lit candle and major burns were avoided, occasional jerks and flinches were noted because the candle in hand did not include the often-taken-for-granted circular paper hot-wax hand protector (aka a paper plate with a hole in the center with protruding candle). The acolytes in particular were vulnerable to the dripping hot wax. However, they quickly learned (after the second or third trickle of hot wax onto their bare hands) that tilting the candle slightly forward solved their problem. However, as I looked to the floor, I realized this had created a new problem for the church custodian as a puddle of wax collected at their feet. I also noticed that the puddle of wax was much larger than it ought to have been based on the short time the bare-handed candles had come into play. Then it dawned on me. This lack of forethought had happened before!

I was unable to avoid the wax puddle as I rolled my mother to the edge of the blaze, now whipped into a lather by the ceiling fan originally installed to cool off the preacher. Our COVID-19 masks offered little protection against smoke inhalation. Mom fought through her asthma valiantly, lighting a candle and aptly demonstrating the communal commitment to this rural liturgy. From the back of the wheel chair watching my brother guide Mom’s tremulous hand toward the last candle in tribute to my father and overwhelmed my sensibilities. I was thankful that my mask hid my stiff upper lip.

Then, with the altar now ablaze—I’ve seen fewer candles in a Greek Orthodox cathedral—the preacher took the pulpit. Coronavirus particles lingering in the atmosphere did not stand a chance now that the sanctuary was transformed into an autoclave. My previous fear that the service would create a super-spreader viral surge was all for naught.

With an obvious metaphor burning before the congregation on the altar and the best opportunity he had all year to preach to the “lost,” the preacher further lit up the pulpit. In contrast to the organist’s heaven-themed music, the preacher referenced every verse pertaining to hell in the Holy Writ. These scriptures were augmented by vigorous emotional appeals to one’s instinct to survive into eternity and every cliché ever preached about the Lake of Fire.

“Do you know that you know that you know…” and “If you’re 99 percent sure you’re saved, you’re 100 percent lost” were frequent refrains extending into the invitation.

The preacher offered a brow-wiping, pulpit-thumping, open-Bible-flailing delivery. One powerful right-handed swoop of his well-worn limp-leather Bible cover across his body, pages waving in the air, extinguished three candles on the back corner, ironically lessening the effect of the flaming metaphor. The preacher qualified his harsh commentary stating,  “I don’t need no ‘doctrinal’ degree to tell you what it takes to be on the highway to hell, as the old song goes.” I think he meant to reference Scripture and not AC/DC. Unfortunately, many of his comments appeared to apply to several of those being memorialized.

“You think this altar is hot?” …

For those who disagreed with his assessment he offered a final consolation, “Don’t be mad at me. Be mad at God.” (It was a questionable rhetorical move if one’s stated intent is to foster an attitude of humble  repentance.)

The fire analogy quickly became a mixed metaphor as the preacher had initially referenced the fire as a pure flame of life that burned eternally. However, perhaps recalling the immediate context of all the “lost” in the congregation, he quickly pivoted, and the eternal flame of life was transformed into the eternal flames of Hades. Either way, the eternal nature of the fiery metaphor burning on the altar was being challenged with each passing minute as the memorial candles were burning down to a nub.

The sermon reintroduced me to the God I had rebelled against many years ago—a God with very real judgement and with grace out of reach, masquerading as just another version of unachievable Old Testament law or the capricious gods of Greek mythology who could not be appeased. These words conjured up memories of my white knuckles gripping the pew during invitations past as my “sincere” faith was challenged week in and week out, reminding me that my sincere faith might be “sincerely wrong.” The flames of these words, no doubt, were also fanned by my past relationship with my all-too-judgmental father whom we were also memorializing.

I had anticipated this experience and took a book to read for distraction (camouflaged in a leather cover so as to appear I was referencing the Scripture during the sermon). However, the inertia of past experience or perhaps the mesmerizing cantor of the preacher’s rhetoric or perhaps the hypnotic effect of the flames drew me back into the abyss of Fundamentalism, and I found myself in the midst of that same teenaged emotional spirituality, complete with a God who appeared more like Zeus than Jesus.

I am reminded of New York Times’ journalist, Dennis Covington, who wrote a book on the    snake-handling churches of Sand Mountain[4] (churches within an hour of my own church). Despite Mr. Covington’s journalistic objectivity, he became so engulfed in this religious subculture and experience that he ultimately joined in and handled poisonous snakes himself!   Like Mr. Covington, I, too, was drawn back into a dangerous, irrational, and destructive religious experience under the guise of a heaven to gain and a hell to pay.

As I recovered from being pummeled on the existential ropes of pseudo-spiritual emotion and experience, I recalled a story told by Reform Jewish theologian and Vanderbilt Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies, A. J. Levine. My recollection and paraphrase of the story follows. Dr Levine recounted her experience consoling her dying mother, reminding her mother of the relief of suffering, the wiping away of tears, the eternal healing of ailments, and of the heavenly bliss that awaits her.

After her mother passed, her husband who had observed the encounter asked her, “What was that all about? You don’t believe any of that.”

And she replied, “In that moment I did.”[5]

In this memorial celebration that was well-intended to garner hope in an often dark and grieving world, all the while reminding of eternal doom, I retreated to more realistic spiritual questions.

As I examined my own life through this fundamentalist scriptural interpretive lens, I pondered the thought that gain of everlasting life on the basis of tyrannical judgment perpetuated by fear and threats of eternal torment would be little more than the death and hell that so often defines the experiences of our temporal world. And who wants to experience that even now, much less for eternity?

The same Scripture also reminds us that Jesus declared:

“Let the dead bury their own dead,” [6]

and  “I came so that they would have life, and have it abundantly.” [7]

(to people who were not actually dead [8]),

and  “Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will preserve it.” [9]

I am reminded of so many in my experience who appear to grieve their own lives like they grieve their loved ones who have passed. There appears to be no life in their life. Jesus’ challenge to those who desire to experience life (Luke 17:33) is a premonition of The Walking Dead.[10] Jesus’ proclamation to those who wager much of their existence in the here and now by seeking eternal bliss primarily on the basis of fear and what awaits in the there and then is to offer life now (John 10:10). I wonder if Jesus’ warning in Luke 17:33 also includes the afterlife.Many are so enamored with going to heaven that they miss the trajectory of the New Testament depicting heaven coming to earth, mostly sooner rather than later.[11] 

As I approach my own senior years, envisioning my candle flickering and burning down on the altar table, I am reminded that death and the afterlife are not the priority of the believer. Rather, I continue negotiating the tension created by fear-based Fundamentalism versus the almost ubiquitous history of human hope (both theological and anthropological) for the sweet by-and-by.. Within this avoidance on the one hand and anticipation on the other lies the ultimate memorial question, “Is life possible before death?[12]

 

[2] Hill Jim. What a Day That Will Be, 1955. Renewed 1983 Ben Speer Music (admin. by ClearBox Rights)

[3] Fa-So-La singing, also known as Sacred Harp or Shape Note singing, is a style of church music in which the notes, “Fa,” “So,” “La,” etc. (each represented by a unique shaped-note on the musical scale) are sang a cappella and in harmony in place of the words of the song on the first verse followed by singing the song narrative.

[4] Covington, Dennis. Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia. Addison-Wesley. 1995.

[5] YouTube. Online video clip, https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=AFy_jjP2WzU (accessed 28 March 2019).

[6] Luke 9:60. New International Version.

[7] John 10;10. New American Standard Bible.

[8] Jesus did not have the benefit of Calvin’s theological construct and assumed that the “dead”people he was addressing actually retained a potential to experience life.

[9] Like 17:33. New International Version. Luke does not think it necessary to augment Jesus’ declaration with “for my sake” as does Matthew.

[10] A modern day zombie apocalypse featuring zombies who are alive only for the sake of being alive and who remain alive only by destroying life

[11] Matthew 6:10 instructs the believer to pray for the rule of heaven to be experienced on earth (“Thy kingdom come on earth …”) Revelation 3:12, 21:2, and 21:10 depict the New Jerusalem descending to earth. Even those of Thessalonians 4:17 who “will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” will return to earth to dwell with the Lord forever on earth in the same way that the citizens of Rome would flock to join the victorious Caesar and usher him back into Rome.

[12] A question explored by Radical (“Pyro-theologian”), Peter Rollins. Rollins, Peter. Insurrection: To believe is Human, To Doubt, Divine. Howard Books. 2011.

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