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APRIL 2004

> Miss Priscilla's Dead | anonymous

When I was seven years old, I attended my first full-fledged, out-n-out, backwoods Kentucky funeral. There's nothing like a backwoods Kentucky funeral to get your adrenal glands kicking, unless it's a backwoods Kentucky revival. Revivals have an entirely different premise than funerals, and usually correspond to the selling of tobacco crops and the availability of cash flow - right out of the pockets of those possessing large crops and a guilty conscience and into the wide-open, grinning wallet of a red-faced preacher. This occasion was not about revival, or anything having to do with "vie," life. It was about pure, backwoods, grim, unforgiving death.

It was an exceptional occasion. A very old woman, Priscilla (Prissy) Lewis had gone on to be with God. Despite this happy fact, it was a very long-faced crowd that turned out for the wake. Priscilla had gotten married to the head deacon some 80 years ago at the age of 14 and during the ensuing years managed to populate what seemed to be the entire Willisburg community. Her death was magnificent, plunging the ridge, the holler and everyone in the surrounding hills into splendid grief. The funeral was epic and well over two hundred people "turned out" for the occasion, cramming into our fifty member church, the older generation in either massive black Queen Victoria dresses or flowered house dresses, the younger people surly in their rock-n-roll t-shirts, angry at having to be there, but unwilling to miss it for the world. It was guaranteed that we would see folks we hadn't seen for years, folks who had backslid right out of the church and into sin. A funeral, in backwoods Kentucky, is a social occasion, the event of the season.

Although I was only seven, I sang in the choir, facing out over the church, which was overflowing from the Amen-corner to the packed aisles where people stood, craning their necks. Everyone was antsy, everyone wanted to walk past the coffin and peer down in at old Prissy, marvel at how "natural" she looked, what dress her children had finally decided on, how the undertaker had got her up in style.

The funeral began with singing, "On a hill far awaaay, stood an ooooold rugged cross, the emblem of sufferin' and shame. And twas on that oooold crooooss, that the deeearest and beest, for a world of lost siiiinners was slain! So, I'll cheeeerish the oooold rugged crooosss ..." The song was wretched, dragging us down with it. Those who had come in high hopes of flirting, maybe meeting up down the hill behind the old outhouses, became instantly depressed. I sang mightily, trying to make my voice heard over the beginnings of weeping. The nearest kin sat in the front row, the second closest in the second row - the two rows beginning to tear up, to pull out Kleenexes and blow their noses self-consciously each louder than the next. It is important to put on a respectable display of grief, after all. In the back, I could vaguely see the teenagers hunched in the corners, staring sulkily around, waiting for their trip past the coffin. Their leader, Longlegs, sat on the aisle, the coveted seat for such occasions, allowing most access to whatever action occurred.

It was not long in coming. My father, the minister, stood up and began to read from the Bible, "And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and first earth were passed away ... And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold the tabernacle of God is with men ... and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain; for the former things are passed away ..."

There was a great screeching from the front row, and the crowd all leaned anxiously from their seats, towards it. This is what we'd all come for. An old woman had lept to her feet, one of Prissy's daughters. Her long, frizzy, sun-bleached yellow-white hair was whipping about her shoulders madly as she pulled it, then gripped the pew in front of her. "Ooooooh nooooo!" Her voice keened over and over. She pushed past another black-haired sister, moving towards the coffin. It was not yet time for visitation, but she was beyond formalities. I began to shiver as she screamed again and again. "God, no!" she kept crying. She reached the coffin where Priscilla lay draped in pink tea-roses. For one moment the daughter looked towards the ceiling, presumably towards God, and then fell across the coffin, her face half inside. The black-haired sister rushed up as the blonde sister collapsed beside the coffin, suddenly quiet.

It was impossible to contain the uproar. People surged into the aisles on the pretence of rescuing the faint sister. Spiderlegs and his crew lingered by the door, wanting to escape into the parking lot where they could make out with various only-distantly-related female cousins in their rusting El Caminos, but unwilling to tear themselves away from the spectacular scene at hand. In the choir, I could barely see. Beside me, another choir member, a deacon's wife fanned herself with the funeral home tissue paper fan which featured a print of Christ agonizing in the garden of Gethsemanae, an appropriate theme for mourning. She was rocking herself back and forth a little, repeating, "Lordy mercy! Lordy mercy!" I craned to see. Half the church surrounded the fallen sister, a sea of bobbing buns and bald spots. Some people took this opportunity to visit with Priscilla, nearly trampling on other people who were attempting to resuscitate the fallen woman. The murmur of "Look at her, don't she look young?" "She h'aint looked that good in years!" kept interrupting the more serious sounds of mourning and attempts at reviving the sister.

My poor dad kept repeating impotently from his pulpit, "People, let's try to be orderly. Has anyone called an ambulance?" No one paid attention. The funeral had taken on a life of its own that was infinitely more festive than the service my father had planned.

We eventually lowered Priscilla into the ground, some two hours later. All of the tea-roses had been ripped from the top of her coffin by well-wishers and those who wanted to keep a souvenir of the most successful funeral Willisburg had ever seen.


> BIOGRAPHY | about the author

Anonymous is a struggling artist / musician / writer / prospective-attorney who lives in New York. She is struggling because her rent is 3x what it was in Kentucky and because she actually lived through the events portrayed in this story. In fact, she is related to most of the characters.