Holy water flows through the Deep South, at times wide and moving swift with significant rapids. Other times it meanders, tea-colored, before sliding into a trickle. Sometimes there are eddies shaded by sweeper branches and mosquitos. No matter, holy water—religion—is pervasive throughout the Deep South.
“One Dollar and a Red Button” from If the Creek Don’t Rise, a collection of my stories, mirrors those various rhythms. The nature of flowing water acts as metaphor for religion, from the tent meeting spiritual to the formality of high mass to those shadowy haint folk beliefs.
The bereaved family often divides clothing and household property among friends and those less fortunate. This distribution of property finds roots in Native American traditions, early Saxon customs, and some indigenous Asian societies.
Interesting customs found in various religious groups surrounding death, include covering all household mirrors with a black cloth, stopping clocks at the hour of death, and removing the dead from a house, feet first, to prevent the body from looking back and summoning others to follow.
The firing of guns, ringing of funeral bells, or wailing chants during the burial were used to scare away ghosts. In many cemeteries, most graves were oriented with the heads of the deceased pointing West with feet to the East. Pagan sun worshippers are thought to have begun this custom, but it is often attributed to early Christians as the final Judgment summons was thought to come from the East.
Southern folk customs regarding death, burial, and afterlife are varied, rich, and deeply held. A lock of hair or a memento saved from the deceased was a common practice. A necklace, hair woven to hold a watch fob, or bracelet that could be opened were popular places to store a memento.
The departure of the soul from the body is a basic tenet of Christianity. Folk beliefs factored in ghosts and haints as unhappy, dissatisfied beings unable to rest after death.
Tom, a character in my story, keeps a button box after his wife’s death at the urging of his housekeeper, Ella Mae. “You never know when you’ll be needing an extray button,” she says. Just as buttons hold clothing together, so Ella Mae understood their symbolic value in holding human connections together. The tale, part of the short story collection, If the Creek Don’t Rise, holds a mirror to the reader’s beliefs about ghosts, personal retribution, and human connections.