Miss Priscilla's Dead
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
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.
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.