On Death and Hillbilly Thomists

Inheritance in the South

There are, no doubt, many reasons why Southerners are stereotypically attached to the South. There is good old Southern pride. There is family. There is the beauty of the land and its familiarity. However, if you really want to understand Southern attachment to the place they call home, you must understand the sober fact that death is a real presence in the South.

People die everywhere, of course, but the South is a place where the entire community participates in the rituals surrounding death. It is a place where death truly brings the world to a halt, not only for those who are immediately affected and hurting, but also for those on the periphery. For instance, if you receive news that your neighbor two doors down has lost a member of the household, or that the elderly gentleman who sits five pews behind you at church has passed away, you clear your calendar and make a dish—usually some awful casserole—that you take to them and pay your respects. While you are visiting with the grieving, you will see a kitchen full of casseroles brought by other people, and in the time you are there you will probably encounter two to three more neighbors coming and going. It does not matter in the slightest if you were close friends with the departed and their loved ones or if you never spoke. If they were in your circle of influence, you know what to do.

In the South, if you find yourself driving down the road and you see a funeral procession, you pull over and wait for them to pass. It doesn't matter how big the highway or how important your appointment. Furthermore, if you know the procession is for a fallen police officer, fireman, or serviceman, you not only pull over, but also get out of your car, remove your hat, and place it over your heart.

Death is everywhere in the South. Many graveyards are still next to churches. As young people accept the lie that they must leave home to be successful, the rural population is becoming increasingly aged. The barns are dilapidated, the cornfields are brown, and the old veterans in their blue ball caps gather at Hardee's on Saturday morning for their biscuits and coffee. Death seems to hang in the air.

With such a somber description, you would think the South is a depressing place, but it is not. Everyone has lost someone, but everyone who has gone has left something behind. To be Southern is to have an inheritance. It is not always a good inheritance, as any conscientious Southerner knows from the shame we have collectively inherited. But each of us knows that the good we have, everything we value and that makes life worth living, was made possible by the work of someone else. Everything we have, for good or for ill, was given to us.

When asked, "why are you attached to this place, this poor backwater nowhere of a place?", Southerners know the only right answer is the one Cicero gave to the same question. Why do you tend to this place? "For the immortal gods, whose will it was that I should not merely receive these things from my ancestors, but should also hand them on to the next generation."

This is likely not what Flannery O'Connor had in mind when she came up with her famous moniker, "Hillbilly Thomist," but the name fits. St. Thomas developed, relying on Aristotle, the argument from motion. Put simply, nothing moves on its own. An outside mover must have moved whatever it is that is moving. The universe, therefore, that we see working and sustaining us in all its beauty and glory, must be moved by God's love.

Southerners know this about the everyday things. Nothing we have came to be on its own. Our grandfathers built our houses and furniture. Our grandmothers handed down our recipes, folk wisdom, and family Bibles. Those who have passed on are the movers. Outside of time and place now, it is their love that has brought us the culture and the place we value and cherish.

Death is the reason Southerners do not live amid flights of fancy. We surround the experience with rituals that ground and attach us to our place. This knowledge of death does not make us fatalists; it is an acknowledgment of the love that moves, not the heavens and the stars, but the little things here, in our place, that make life worth living.

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