See the introduction to this series of posts: Writing on Things Southern and Past
By Joe Bageant
My family's ancestral home on Shanghai Road, a great sagging clapboard thing perched on a hill with its many filigreed balconies and porches like heisted antebellum petticoats, sat perched on a hill at the base of Sleepy Creek Mountain. Gnawed by the elements on the outside and woodsmoked by a thousand griddlecake mornings on the inside, where children ran the stairways and mice ran the cellars, my grandparent's house was stuffed and running over with life itself.
It was also a place where people died as well as lived. Died and were "laid out" in the parlor. My great-grandfather Old Jim was the last one to be laid out there. At the time I very young and was among the last in my family to see the embalmer dump the white enameled bucket of blood over the roots of the wavering red poppies that grew hard by the front yard. In those days and in those hollers the embalmer sometimes came to your house and laid out the body in the parlor. Low lamps burned all night and Old Jim was so still in that satin-lined box, like some ancient felled tree. Then that first realization of mortality struck, killing that innocence it kills in all of us. Maw leaned through the kerosene lantern glow and said, "Joey, be real still and you'll hear the angels sing." I did. No angels sang. Not a sound except the breathing of Old Jim's great black dog whose green eyes flashed from under the bier. I also remember a strange chemical smell. They say Old Jim had already picked out his burying suit years before and he smelled like mothballs when he went into the coffin.