Whenever I’m asked where I’m from I always say, ‘Originally’, pause for originally to sink in, ‘from Kentucky’. Compelled to further qualify the answer I add that I’m not from that part of the state - not those eastern mountains where the hillbillies live. The barefoot, gun toting, moonshining, coal dusted people from the hollows - that wasn’t, that isn’t, me.

Then I feel badly about working so hard to convey that not all Kentuckians are the same. Truth is though, there is a sizeable difference in the section of the state where I grew up that lies within a kiss of Tennessee, and the eastern half that borders the Virginias.

The Scots-Irish influence in the Appalachians was prominent in the 1770s when the first flow of settlers blazed across the Wilderness Road, over the Cumberland Mountains and into a region that was too dangerous for most to conquer.

But by the late 1780s the eastern region of Kentucky could be considered a Little Europe where the Ulster-Scots, English, Scottish Highlanders, German Lutherans and the French Huguenots settled.

Eastern Kentuckians have always suffered from dialect prejudice. The twang is strong, and the dialect is a-prefixing heavy. “I’ll come a-moaning and a-crying.” One might hear, “He clomb a tree,” and “I’m agin that idea.”

I’ve scratched my head several times trying to understand this older form of their language, still spoken today. Hilarious really, given that my Southern accent was once as deep as the yellow loam of Mississippi.

It is true that there is a darkness, a bleakness to the mountains raped of their coal.

The most isolated families somehow survive an incredibly harsh life. But from the depths of the desolation rises the beauty of the old bluegrass music, their gift for storytelling and a poignant tradition that is still honoured – a home wake.

This is ‘Home Funeral’, a photo taken by Shelby Lee Adams in 1990.

At a home wake in the mountains, friends and families would file into the home of the deceased from the coal mines, the farms and the factories to pay their respects, and then gathered in the kitchen for sandwiches and coffee. A country wake in the mountains might last days as opposed to what was then the normal practice of a two-night maximum at our funeral home on the other side of the state. In our town, my father was responsible for turning the tide in the length of visitations by encouraging people to sit for one night instead of two. Even though he was heavy on the charm, I’m not sure how he managed that, come to think of it.

I remember only one family that chose to hold a home wake instead of settling down in one of the dark, cool rooms in our funeral parlour. There may have been a few more, but it was very rare by the time I came along. I thought it would require less work for my father, but instead, there seemed to be an awful lot of to-ing and fro-ing and detailed organization. The phone rang constantly with calls from the townspeople who were unused to home wakes. Aggravated and confused, ‘Where the hell is he, Frank?’ It came to that.

Mr. Watson died of a heart attack at a frightfully young age. Not yet fifty the day he fell to the floor in a silent heap, our community was shocked by the news. First, my father collected him, brought him to the funeral home and prepared him, then carted him back to his home. The Watsons (not their real name) lived just up the street from us, but my father couldn’t exactly wheel him across Main Street, so the hearse was employed to transport Mr. Watson back and forth. After he was laid out in his living room in a casket, the Watson’s home was open for visitation for a few days until the funeral. During the unusually long wake I pestered my father with questions. Why so young? Why no warning? What is heart disease? And most doggedly, why wasn’t he here with us? Mr. Watson’s family wanted him near, he told me. Couldn’t bear to part with him, not yet.

Because he was fairly well known and suffered a particularly tragic death, Mr. Watson’s family decided to hold the funeral service in the church, a space large enough to deal with the overflow. My father drove to their house once again to transport him to the church, also on Main Street, and then, finally, to the cemetery.

Mr. Watson was the father of a girl who was only a year younger than me and this made his death more memorable to me than his age, or his home wake. She and her older sister were father-less before they graduated high school. After Mr. Watson was buried, the grief took hold of them like a grief I’d never seen.

Mrs. Watson and her daughters were always late to church on Sunday mornings. No matter what time they arrived for the service, they walked the long aisle all the way down to the front, everyone’s eyes upon them, and sat in the second row from the front, which was always, without fail, empty.

When our hell fire and damnation preacher got going, the three females huddled closely together. They inched towards each other, leaving a long empty space at both ends of the pew. Then my friend placed her head on her mother’s shoulder and soon her little body trembled. The shiver turned into silent convulsions. The harder she tried not to make a sound, the more violently her body shook. She remained silent and animated, lost in her grief throughout the service. Their Sunday ritual did not end in just a few weeks; their grief rode them for a very long time.

Both of Mr. Watson’s daughters were brilliant and eventually thrived…until one day the girl who was my friend fell to the floor in a silent heap. Dead. Heart attack. Before she was fifty.


Funerals used to be so simple. They were never called a Celebration of Life, or a memorial service. Just funerals. Tom’s funeral. Jane’s funeral. As a child I never said, "You can’t come over to play today because we’re having a celebration of Mr. Slater’s life."

It never looked like a celebration and it never sounded like a celebration.

In 1888, when the successful novelist and phenomenal social reformist Mary Ward buried her mother in the Lake District, she called upon a group in Ambleside ‘who form a little society for performing music at funerals’ to play a hymn, some organ music and the ‘Death March’. She thought the ceremony was beautiful, simple and peaceful.

For the sixteen years I lived in our funeral home the soft tones of the Hammond organ rose above the quiet chatter and hypnotized me and whatever audience the day brought. From that efficient music box poured the notes of one hymn after another.

Our town was seeped in religion. A plethora of Southern Baptist churches outnumbered the one Presbyterian, the one Catholic, and the one Episcopalian church and thus defined the region.

Holy Roller churches and their glittery loud services sprang up overnight.

Tent revivals dotted the fields in the summer.

I always thought it might be nice to change the repertoire. I wondered how my father would have reacted if a widow insisted that he use Chattanooga Choo Choo to open the service because it was her husband’s favourite. Or, could he substitute That Old Black Magic for The Old Rugged Cross? But there was no chance that a funeral service in our town would host anything other than a hymn played simply.

The melodies of How Great Thou Art, Shall We Gather at the River and When the Roll is Called Up Yonder were played on the smooth keys of that organ over and over… And over. So I’m sure I’ll be forgiven for a certain numbness that washed over me when after a few years I no longer heard them. They remained in the background like a ghost sound and one refrain dissolved into another, into another.

When I moved away, returning only for short spurts, then not at all, the world changed and funerals and their music changed with it.

In 2006 a survey of five thousand Britains revealed their vote for the year’s

Top 10 Requested Funeral Songs:

Goodbye My Lover - James Blunt

Angels - Robbie Williams

I’ve Had the Time of My Life - Jennifer Warnes and Bill Medley

Wind Beneath My Wings - Bette Midler

Pie Jesu - Requiem

Candle in the Wind - Elton John

With or Without You - U2

Tears in Heaven - Eric Clapton

Every Breath You Take - The Police

Unchained Melody - Righteous Brothers

Moving right along to the

Top Country Funeral Songs of 2011

Dancing with the Angels - Monk and Neagel

Angels Among Us - Alabama

I Can Only Imagine - Mercy Me

There You’ll Be - Faith Hill

When I Get Where I’m Going - Brad Paisley

Go Rest High on that Mountain - Vince Gill

Daddy’s Hands - Holly Dunn

Holes in the Floor of Heaven - Steve Wariner

If I Had Only Known - Reba McEntire

My Wish - Rascal Flatts

And finally,

‘Glee’ Season 2 Episode 21, Funeral Song List

Try A Little Tenderness - Otis Redding

My Man – Barbra Streisand

Pure Imagination - from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

Some People - Gypsy

Back to Black - Amy Winehouse Death makes its own music.

Once a piece of music is heard at a funeral, whatever the tune may be, is it ever heard in quite the same way again?