Death is never convenient, no matter how long anticipated or how stoically accepted. I experienced this to some small degree as I boarded a red-eye flight last week, bound for Georgia and my grandfather’s funeral. His body had been failing steadily over his last months, and the family had received frequent updates on his condition until the very end. Nonetheless, when death finally came, it demanded recognition with its customary imperiousness.
Perhaps because of the interruption that death inevitably entails, there is something fitting about the Southern custom of pausing for funeral motorcades. The neighbors of the bereaved participate at least for a brief moment in his experience. It is hard to imagine a courtesy of this sort in Boston or New York. Granted, it might not happen on the interstates of Atlanta either (which is full of former Bostonians and New Yorkers anyway). However, as we processed down the two-lane highways of Dearing, Georgia; where white, clapboard churches are as common as urban Starbucks, and every gas station doubles as a “feed and seed” or a “bait and tackle;” unfamiliar cars dutifully took their ease. Most, even if they were headed in the opposite direction, pulled over onto the grassy shoulder in a gesture of extravagance, as if to remove even the appearance of routine continuance. No doubt, some waited with less patience than others. Surely some yielded out of social pressure rather than heart-felt reverence. Nevertheless, the etiquette allowed me—and others, I suspect—to feel the full weight of Grandpa’s death.
The mere cessation of business-as-usual silently argued for death’s finality. For who can really believe in the seriousness of any event, so long as it passes unregistered in the demeanor of his neighbors? As long as the band plays on, who can believe that the Titanic is really sinking? Yet, as I coasted past the idle motorists, it seemed that the band had indeed stopped. Grandpa’s death “thickened” within me. I felt much as I imagine most Christians did a century ago, as they watched their neighbors close shop on Sunday—or even as some Catholics still do, when traffic yields once a year to their Corpus Christi procession. The caesura suggested an inbreaking of life in its density; and, for a brief moment, the shades of the quotidian ceded right of way to the robust mysteries of life, death, and salvation.
Perhaps for this reason the Catholic Church has devised a calendar of feasts and fasts and has traditionally enforced their observance with strict “obligations.” Unless Christians are nudged into a communal pause, the hope of salvation memorialized therein remains a wan abstraction. And every Christian—indeed, every neighbor—who does not observe the pause, renders the event “thinner” even in private consciousness. The social formation of the imagination was doubtlessly one of the great strengths of “Christendom.”
Ironically, the small courtesies of the South reveal a spiritual vision perhaps more communal and sacramental than that of regions reckoned more “Catholic”—at least by the numbers. And, while the distinction of regions has faded significantly under the leveling influence of technology, there may still be some justice in Flannery O’Connor’s oft-cited observation: “While the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted.”