Going back to records of the Choestoe Baptist Church of February 18, 1843 and April 15, 1843, in minutes of church conference hand-written by John Souther, church clerk, we discover that Choestoe was instrumental in helping “the church at Brass Town” (which we believe to be the church later called New Liberty) in the process of organizing, and receiving three members. Whether these transferred from Choestoe Church was not made clear in the minutes. But from its beginning the New Liberty Church was supported, both by gift of land and membership from John Souther and members of his family. As several of them who remained in Choestoe died, their resting places were in the cemetery at New Liberty. John was buried there following his death on February 2, 1889 and his wife, Mary Polly Combs Souther following her death on May 1, 1894, as well as several of their children, and members of subsequent generations.
As I view graves in the old section of New Liberty Cemetery, containing the remains of my ancestors, I began to think about burial customs that were common to our people in this mountain region long before professional funeral homes, crematories and the rites and ceremonies currently associated with death and dying were practiced
Because embalming had not been introduced here in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the body of the deceased had to be quickly readied for burial and the funeral was usually the next day (or sometimes the same day) after death occurred.
My first recollection of participation in community burial rites was at the death of my great Uncle William Dallas Collins (03/05/1846-07/18/1938) who married a daughter of John and Mary Souther, Sarah Rosannah Souther (06/13/1846-02/01/1929). My father, J. Marion Dyer, was very handy with tools. He often led in designing and making the casket for deceased persons in our community. With help from neighbors, my father soon had a presentable coffin made to receive the body of Great Uncle Dallas who had been a solid citizen, beloved farmer, church leader and justice of the peace in his community. Uncle Dallas had lived right in the shadow of New Liberty Baptist Church, in which cemetery his body would be laid.
Tolling the death on the church steeple bell was also a practice when a death occurred. It was customary to toll the bell the number of years the deceased had lived. The announcement via the bell went throughout the valley, and whether people counted the 92 tolls or not before losing count, at least they would know that “Uncle Dallas” (as he was respectfully called by many) had died because they knew of his serious illness. The bell message was a sign to stop work in the fields and prepare a grave for the burial and make other funeral arrangements.
While the men worked to fashion the casket, line it with cotton, and place over the padding a brocaded white cloth which had been purchased in advance and saved for the purpose, the body was being readied for the wake. First came the bathing and dressing in the very best clothes the deceased had available. For Uncle Dallas, it was his Sunday suit, made of homemade woven wool cloth from his own sheep, and a white shirt, also homemade.
To dress a woman for wake, the process might have been a bit more complicated. Some of the women, anticipating death, would have made in advance a “burying dress,” and saved it ready for the occasion. But for others, the neighbor women would bring together appropriate cloth they might have and make a shroud for dressing the deceased’s body. Haste always seemed to be necessary in preparing the body before rigor mortis set in. Coins were placed temporarily over the deceased’s eyes to insure their closing.
When the casket was finished, the body, which had been laid out on boards across the bed frame, was transferred to the casket and placed in state. The all-night wake began. Women prepared (or brought from their own homes) food for the occasion. In these all-night vigils, people talked of the life and work of the dearly departed. It was all a closely-knit process of dealing with grief and loss.
Then came the funeral service itself. I remember Uncle Dallas’s was held in his home. Sometimes the body was taken to the church for the funeral. Men in the community had already dug the grave. In case a pastor was not available, for very few of them in those days lived in the community but were itinerant, then someone with the ability to read and speak well would give the Scripture and eulogy and offer the prayer. If singing were in order, gospel songs that told of resurrection, hope and heaven were sung by those whose voices could harmonize. One of the favorite hymns in my community was “O Come, Angel Band.”
The short trip from Uncle Dallas’s house to New Liberty Cemetery was made with his casket loaded on the farm wagon drawn by his two faithful mules. We marched in procession behind his casket and, upon arriving at the cemetery, saw the lowering into the grave by means of ropes the men had stretched across the open grave on a sort of scaffold. Homemade bouquets of flowers or those made from crepe paper were placed on the closed grave. Death, the great leveler, had come into yet another household in our Choestoe Community. How many times would I see this repeated before I would move on to other places, and see more modern means of care for the dead and burial.
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her “On Death and Dying” wrote: “Watching a peaceful death of a human being reminds us of a falling star; one of a million lights in a vast sky that flares up for a brief moment only to disappear into the endless night forever.” But somehow, Great Uncle Dallas, and others who passed like a falling star, did not move on into endless night. We remember, even until now, their lives and example, their values and principles, their faith and hope. He and they loved us and gave us an anchor, sure and steadfast. And that has made all the difference in who we are.
c 2010 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published June 10, 2010 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.