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Tag Archives: Ulster Scots

Sitting Up With the Dead, an Appalachian Custom

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The word Appalachia is an old Indian word, and it means “endless mountain range.” The Cherokee Indians who lived there thought the Appalachian Mountains went on forever and ever. Covering thirteen states today, gazing out the windows of a car or stopping at a look-out site give the same sense of forever to these mountains. Their beauty is breath-taking.

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Pioneer Ulster Scots and Scots-Irish settled the mountains of Appalachia during the 18th century. Proudly, they brought their heritage with them, which included an allegiance to family, friends, and faith, the Presbyterian faith. Gravitating to the rocky terrain, so like their homeland of Scotland, they sought new lives. Independent and self-reliant to the core, they also were protective of each other. Their helping hands reached out to kith and kin.

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Sitting up with the dead, also called a wake, is one of the ways they stuck close to each other. It showed respect for the person and his life. It might have been adopted from the Jewish tradition of sitting with a dead body until burial. Called in Hebrew shemira, which means guarding or watching.

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Their lives were hard, and a home funeral brought comfort to the bereaved. These wakes could last for days, as mourners traveled from many hollers. Generally, the guests paid their respects to the dead, then went into another room for sandwiches, coffee and a long visit. Some pulled up chairs beside the handmade coffin or leaned against the walls.

The women in the family prepared the body. It was an open casket, and usually a handmade quilt covered the body, along with flowers and sweet-smelling herbs. The body was dressed in the Sunday-best clothes, which might have been clean overalls and never left alone.

In describing the Appalachian people, John Muir said “You are not in the mountains, the mountains are in you.” When my husband’s family left the mountains of Erwin, Tennessee, to take jobs in the cotton mills of South Carolina, they brought their culture with them.

Just like their Appalachian forebearers, wakes were still part of the grieving process into the twentieth century.

Oliver Edward Ingle, my husband’s father, passed away on December 6, 1968 at the Wallace Thompson Hospital in Union, South Carolina. Though embalming was the funeral home’s job then to prepare the body, the family still held a wake at his home. In the living room, John and his brothers greeted their father’s siblings, cousins, and neighbors all through the night, while their mother slept sedated, overcome with the shock. They pulled the sofa in front of the fireplace, because it was the only heat in the house, and brought in the solid oak, kitchen chairs for extra seating.

The percolator kept them plied with coffee, and the women of Allen Memorial Baptist had filled the table with food. Emotions were high, as the reality of loss crept in the door. There were times during the night that only the sons sat steadily before the fire. These stoic brothers, still in shock from their father’s sudden death that day, passed the night sharing memories, tears, stories, and laughter.

For almost twenty-four hours, Tom, John, Buck, and Jim Ingle kept a vigil in the house their father had built.

When a ship moves across the water, it leaves a wake in its path. It is a concrete sign that shows the ship’s passage, and it can be followed. Sometimes it spreads out and touches other ships or a shoreline.

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At a funeral wake, people talk about how they have been touched by a life, remember stories about the person, and even think about how different life will be without that person. Sharing these memories affirms a life and what has been left in his wake. And even though we can’t see them anymore, we won’t and can’t forget.

As Navy veterans, the Ingle sons celebrated the wake of their father’s life that night and into the days that followed.

“I thank my God in all my remembrance of you.” Philippians 1:3 ESV

 

 

 

 

 

 

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