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A Visit from the Bereavement Committee

Everyone has fears about death—loss of control, pain, leaving loved ones behind, regret, eternal damnation. As a daughter of the South, however, I hold yet another overriding horror: a visit from the bereavement committee. Let’s be clear, it’s not death I fear—it’s the committee.

For those who don’t belong to a church somewhere in the southern United States, a bereavement committee is a group of well-meaning and generous women who descend on the household of a deceased person, providing comfort, food, and labor. Feeding, cleaning up, and looking after a mourning family is a high calling. Someone brings ham, of course, and there are casseroles. In certain quarters, there is a little competition to see just who can get their food to the bereaved the fastest. Some people precook their bereavement meals and store them in their basement freezer chests. I consider this cheating, and also a little creepy. Others would say, death is part of the circle of life, and it’s best to be prepared.

It’s this very preparedness that makes me wary. I am the epitome of unpreparedness. I have never come upon a tragic occasion in my life with a serviceable pair of pantyhose in my possession. It is only now that pantyhose have gone out of style that I can attend a funeral without a big run up my leg. It stands to reason also that I will die in a state of unpreparedness, very much like the young woman in my mother’s church who died suddenly and unexpectedly. The bereavement committee arrived to find a sink full of dishes, eight or more loads of dirty laundry (filthy dirty, according to all reports), and not even an ounce of milk in the refrigerator for those poor motherless children who undoubtedly had dirty necks and not a decent outfit among them to wear to the funeral. So, not only did this woman die, but then everyone in town heard about her dirty carpets.

As a decent, progressive Southern woman, of course, I hereby disapprove of the bereavement committee and their judgment of this woman. She died, and her children and her household needed support, not a makeover. However, in the dark night of my soul, I shudder. I remain mortified for this woman. For several weeks after hearing this tale, I made sure to wipe down the counters and sweep the floor before turning in, lest I died before I woke.

I am aware that my fear of judgment, especially over my housekeeping, is horribly unliberated. I am working on it, I assure you. However, I was raised by a woman who had to clean the house for a week before I could have a sleepover. We ate every single meal on a placemat with a fork, knife, and spoon sitting in their proper arrangement, even if we were eating baloney sandwiches.

If you come to eat at my house, I will probably not put the bottle of ketchup on the table. I will put ketchup in a little bowl and hand it to you like that’s the way we always serve it. There is still part of me that wants to iron my cloth napkins. In truth, most of them are stained and stashed in a basket in my laundry room at this moment, hidden from the bereavement committee. However, I do aspire to iron them, so that upon my death, a committee member will find them, pressed and sorted by color in the drawer of my buffet, right beside my recently polished silver.

I do not really understand this compulsion for prissy perfection, but I fear that there is a little of the bereavement committee in me as well. It is the same craziness that drives me to pretend that I have my Christmas shopping done in November. I will also tell you that I’m having a great day even if I want to wallow on the floor with depression. I will beg you to stay for dinner even though I hate you and have only two pork chops and a box of rice. I can also swear that I have never emitted a bodily odor or had one too many glasses of wine. Because, really, I rarely drink. There is no need for any member of the committee to go into the bottom cabinet of my butler pantry because those bottles there, they are just for entertaining. They’ve been there forever. Honestly.

If there is an upside to all of this Southern-lady pretense, it’s that it leads us to our real friends. A real friend is the person with whom you can drop all of the BS. You can put the ketchup bottle and the liquor bottle right on the table, pour your friend a drink, and then you can tell her just how bad you are feeling. She will never tell a soul. This intimacy is our reward for having to face the bereavement committee all of our lives. In fact, a real friend will not only deny any and all nasty rumors about you, if you should die suddenly, she will sprint over to your house, wash all your dishes, burn your journals, and iron your napkins before the first member of the bereavement committee walks into the door. Friends, I am this woman. Call me if you die. I’ll do the same.