Knowing How to Bury Your Dead: The Significance of the Post-Burial Home Visit

By Keagan LeJeune


Brad Hanks grew up in the same town I did, but since his father was principal of Hathaway Elementary and High School, we never went to the same school. I knew him from summer league baseball and later at the various retreats and catechism classes Our Lady Immaculate Catholic Church conducted for all the Catholic kids attending the public high schools around Jennings. When we became college roommates, though, we developed a close friendship, one that lasts today. We are still very close and consider each other a part of the family. In June 2002, Marilyn Leleux, Brad's grandmother, the woman I knew as "Mawmaw" Marilyn, passed away. Geesey-Ferguson Funeral Home of Crowley, Louisiana, prepared the body and directed the burial services. Family and friends gathered for visitation on Tuesday, and that evening a member of her church led the group in the praying of the rosary and a priest officiated at the wake service. The following day, a funeral mass was held at St. Margaret Catholic Church in Esterwood where she was a long-time parishioner.

During the services, two of Brad's cousins stood to read something they had prepared. "Marilyn Leleux knew how to bury her dead," they read. It was a phrase they had heard over and over again since her death. Visitors to the funeral home, members of St. Margaret's, dear friends of Marilyn, all of these people said it to them. Marilyn knew her obligation to care for her dead.her relatives, her friends, her fellow parishioners who passed. On too many occasions to count, it was Marilyn who led the rosary at the funeral home. It was Marilyn who offered up masses and prayed for the sick. It was Marilyn who brought food to a grieving family. It was Marilyn who, weeks later, greeted the widow or widower at church or checked in on them at home. Marilyn Leleux knew how to bury her dead, and the church community she was a part of cherished that about her, and relied on it.

After the mass, mourners followed the family and hearse to Woodlawn Cemetery in Crowley. We prayed again. After the service at the cemetery, the women in black high heels grabbed a husband's or son's arm for balance as they struggled back to their cars through the grass and dirt, and the men in their church clothes debated going home and changing before they went back to work or driving straight there. As mourners returned to their cars, Brad walked over to me and said, "The family's going over to my Aunt Roy Lynn's house. Why don't you and Melanie [my wife] come over and get something to eat.. It wasn't a surprise. Brad and I are like family, and the family was gathering for a meal.

Over the course of the funeral services, people celebrated the life of Marilyn Leleux. They paid their respects and offered their condolences, and the entire affair proved the profound impact this woman's life had on the lives of so many others. Still, when I think back on that event, I remember those two comments more vividly than any others. Thinking of them as a friend, I appreciate how they moved me, how I carry them around as memory of her, as proof of her meaningful and purposeful life. Thinking of them as a folklorist, I appreciate how they stand as meaningful expressions of belief. One could argue that the acknowledgement of Marilyn's service to her church community after a parishioner's death, while quite ordinary and seemingly insignificant, stood as a statement about the responsibility of lay individuals within the Catholic Church, or as a statement about the group's belief about the continuation of community beyond the grave. In addition, one could argue that Brad's simple invitation to me could be seen as a powerful confirmation of identity. Unfortunately, it might be our inclination to ignore such small details. However, these small practices become indispensible and meaningful components of the burial process, definitely worthy of attention.

When my father passed away in September of 2009, he and my mother had already made most of the arrangements. He had the funeral home picked out, his casket and plot purchased, the times for visitation at the funeral home set, the wake planned, and the readings and music for funeral mass chosen. However, his planning wasn't done. He also prepared for his extended family gathering at his home. He knew they would come. They always did. They needed it, and we needed it--and he needed it. For my father, the post-burial get-together stood as an important part of the burial ritual, a part he planned in the same fashion he planned his wake service, funeral mass, and burial. During the event, as I walked around my parents' home and observed what was happening around me, I recalled other funerals and burials in my extended family. I soon saw these gatherings for what they are elaborate expressions of unity and identity and, I would assert, endeavors for individuals to maintain control over the care of their dead. By offering a detailed description of one of these gatherings and considering its function in relation to funeral homes, this article explores the post-burial gatherings at family homes. By exploring the structure of the event as it relates to the social values and historical developments in the culture, it also examines these events as expressions of core Cajun values and of the region's cultural Catholicism.1 Finally, it uses the event to ask a question about trends in Louisiana folklore studies.

I do not wish to burden the reader with a discussion of the research arguing the value-laden nature of wakes, funerals, and burials. I suspect that no-one underestimates the cultural significance of these rites, and few would need proof that they vary based on environmental and cultural concerns. In short, archeologists, anthropologists, and folklorists often turn to deathlore and burial practices in order to gain insight about a culture's mythology, religious beliefs, familial and/or social systems, etc. However, some scholarship seems particularly apt to mention here. The relevant literature centers on the emergence of the funeral home in America (Mitford 1963, 1998; Editors of Consumer Reports 1977; Marks and Calder 1982; and Laderman 2003). In one fashion or another, these works describe the commemoration's move towards commercialization. They lament the rising cost of funerals. They deplore its steady removal of the individual from the process of serving the dead and decry its displacement of the home from the process's center. While all make a similar point, perhaps the best known is Mitford's The American Way of Death (1963), which reached the top of the New York Times best-seller list. At one point in her newer work, The American Way of Death Revisited, Mitford writes, "The option of caring for your own dead, if it takes hold, will mark a break with the trend towards ever-more-costly and mechanically impersonal journeys to the grave." (1998: 272). To engage in the debate about funeral homes is beyond the scope of this article, but these books and the quotation point to two core questions: How essential is the process of caring for our own dead, and what will people do to remain involved in the process?

Of course, the discussion hinges on the fact that before the advent of funeral homes as we think of them, individuals controlled the process of caring for the deceased. In my interviews, people recall the involvement of family members at every stage of the process, from those first few moments immediately following a person's passing to the digging of the grave.2 Even if one person in the community held the job of tending to the body itself or making a coffin, families prepared the home for the wake or visitation, took on the immense responsibility of "sitting up with the dead," and completed any other necessary job. During all of these tasks, the home remained at the center of activity. Harvey Dever, 94, told me that his uncle who owns the Snider Funeral Home in DeQuincy began as a worker in Berden-Cambell, a large furniture company. "He was working as a salesman for Berden-Cambell, so this undertaker, he started helping him, so he learned it. So before they [State of Louisiana] started making them licensing them [funeral directors], he was grandfathered in, and he started. It was in his house." (2010). As the number of funeral homes increased, the role and responsibility of the individual decreased. The custom of family members staying up with the dead through the night serves as an excellent example.

In the "Deathlore" entry of The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Alan Brown claims that the belief that "corpses must not be left alone from time of death until the burial" originated with the Scots-Irish who settled the South in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (Brown 2009: 74). The practice, he asserts, derived not only from matters of belief but the practical concerns of animals crawling through windows or doors, which were often open during the hot and humid southern nights. Most importantly, he notes the practice of sitting with the dead declined as funeral parlors began to spread at the turn of the century (74-75). Slowly, these tasks transitioned to the funeral homes. Kevin Klein, the current director of a funeral home in Jennings, relays his knowledge about the start of Miquez Funeral Home and his experience with wakes in the home:

Miquez opened up in October 1935, his own business. Prior to that, he worked for Mister Fred Gimbell, and Mister Gimbell had a store on Main Street here in town, and the name of the store was either Gimbell Furniture and Undertaking Company or Gimbell Cabinet Makers and Undertaking Company. It was both because funeral homes were few and far between then. Most of your viewings, visitations, were done in the homes. They weren't done at a designated funeral home. They were done in the person's home. I've never had any. I've been here 18 years. I've never had any home visitations. (2010)

As funeral homes took control of these steps and as services moved away from the home, people noticed the change. Sidney Fontenot, born in 1929, describes the attitudes surrounding the transition:

There were no funeral homes. The dead were kept for viewing in the living room, which also served as the master bedroom. The women sat inside while the men viewed the body and then went back outside. If it was cold or there were a lot of mosquitoes, they built a fire around which they sat or stood.... It was expected that some would stay up all night with the dead. To leave one unattended was unthinkable.... Being traditional and slow to accept change was most pronounced when funeral homes came into being. We were used to doing everything ourselves from dressing the dead and building the caskets to digging the grave and filling it up. The neighbors were reluctant to go to funeral homes with their dead. Those who did were criticized. "They are too good for their dead" would be said. They might add, "I wonder what he might say if he could speak about this." (2007)

Currently, while many aspects of the funeral and burial rest under the control or domain of the funeral director/home, a few portions, especially the post-burial home visitation (what is also known as the bereavement meal or the repast, the latter especially in African-American communities), remain in the hands of the family. Even though individuals have surrendered some of their traditional roles in caring for the deceased, they have maintained this tradition. In doing so, they have maintained opportunities for gift exchange, to exert individual control over some of the process, and to make statements of unity and identity.

In many regards, the post-burial visit and meal is yet another example of the region's many folk religious practices. Even though the pool of scholarship examining the connection between faith and Louisiana culture, especially the ties between Catholicism and Cajun culture, runs deep, Marcia Gaudet's recent essay "Cultural Catholicism in Cajun-Creole Louisiana" provides one of the most lucid and over-arching statements about the relationship between Cajun life and the Catholic belief system. In the article, Gaudet describes the "pervasive influence of non-official Catholicism in the region" (Gaudet 2000: 4):

In the culture of the Cajuns and Creoles, the sacred and secular are often conflated. The Church and its rituals are central in the life cycle and throughout the calendar year-evident from Mardi Gras (certainly at the secular or profane end of the continuum) to All Saints Day (where the sacred is more privileged). The unifying potential of cultural communion and sacramental renewal is present in the rituals and secular sacraments of Louisiana's Cajuns and Creoles. An emotional connection with the cultural rituals as well as the official sacraments has colored their vision of the world. (4)

The bereavement meal parallels many other religious activities appearing in Cajun Louisiana, though some might not see the activity as a primarily religious event. Yet the gathering does provide ministerial services and multiple opportunities to express belief. In their condolences and conversations, attendees often cite scripture, recite prayers, or convey ideas concerning their religious worldview. In addition, family members often create shrines or memorials for the departed, which usually contain objects illustrating both the sacred and the secular parts of their lives. The event, like so many other religious rituals in Cajun country, relies on the nexus of family and demonstrates a religious system built on self-reliance and lay expertise.

The history of scholarship examining cultural Catholicism (though the works may not use the term) seems entrenched in the folklore discipline, but it includes less research concerning death and burial practices of Louisiana Cajuns than one might expect. Many works briefly mention burial practices, usually offering brief discussions rather than thorough or thick descriptions. Regardless of the description's length, a few bits of information undoubtedly will emerge. The discussion likely will include a mention of a superstition—the stopping of clocks, emptying all the home's water vessels, or some other custom. The work also usually will include a statement about the tradition of the wake occurring in the home, and funeral parlors displacing this tradition.3

A small sampling of a range of works may make the point while they pique the reader's interest. Revon Reed's Lache pas la Patate includes a few paragraphs on Cajun practices involving death. Along with comments about some superstitions and displays of grief, he notes the importance of the home in the burial process and the deceased being displayed in the home's parlor or front room for twenty-four hours (Reed 1976: 75). Mary Alice Fontenot and Julie Landry devote a section of their book The Louisiana Experience (1983) to burial customs. In the course of a 19-page section including illustrations, they discuss burial practices in the northern and southern regions of Louisiana, including "La Toussaint," "Mourning Customs," "The Black Community," and "National Cemeteries." Grave houses, grave decorations, printed funeral notices, home wakes, memorial cards, and tossing clods of dirt on the coffin, all pop up in the work's series of descriptions. In its thorough description of the culture, Cajun Country (1991) presents death as a meaningful and revealing part of Cajun life, reflective of the social systems and worldviews driving the Cajun. For example, the work indicates that funeral practices often illustrate principles of group cohesiveness, Cajun sociability, and the prevalence of informally transmitted religious beliefs. However, even this book does not describe funeral or burial practices in detail.

Perhaps many of these discussions in some way trace back to the noted Breaux Manuscript (1840-1901). As it appears on the Louisiana Folklife page, the section "Deaths and Funerals" begins with a series of practices often mentioned in other works: a mourner whispers to the honeybees of their master's death, cloths cover mirrors, black shrouds drape around door frames, clocks stop. The works continues. Once relatives learn of the death, they arrive at the home, even if they must travel some distance. The body laid out in the parlor and the house now full of company, visitors pass by the body to pay their respects and pray for the soul. "In another room, a table is set up with refreshments for those who have come a distance," the manuscript's author writes. The discussion moves on to describe the procession of the body to the grave and the burial. It ends, "It is an ancient custom to throw a clod of earth on the coffin after it has been lowered into the grave" ("Deaths and Funerals").

In Marcia Gaudet's Tales from the Levee, similar details appear in her discussion of death rites. In addition to descriptions of "tying the chin" and closing the eyes of the deceased, placing black cloths on the door, and whispering the sorrowful news to the bees, Gaudet emphasizes the occurrence of the wake in the home. In this case, some details about the event are given, for example, removing the mattress and bed slats if the wakes were held in the bedroom, placing a board on sawhorses and covering it all with black cloths if wakes were in the front room, and mourners bringing "'a little thing of camphor to smell' while viewing the body" (Gaudet 1984: 23). Most pertinent to this article's discussion, Gaudet also describes friends and family gathering after the burial for a large dinner. She explains:

The food was usually prepared by friends and neighbors who began the preparations as soon as the death occurred. Since transportation was slow and there were no restaurants, relatives from neighboring areas would need a place to rest and eat before returning home. (23)

Gaudet turns to Arnold Van Gennep's Manuel de Folklore Français Contemporain (1958) for his explanation:

He says it is a counterpart of the baptismal and wedding dinners, and a symbol of the union of the survivors at a time of grief. Eating and drinking together is a rite of unity or togetherness on each of these occasions. (Gaudet 1984: 23)

Gaudet's choice to describe the rituals after the burial is noteworthy, as well as her attempt to explain the cause of this ritual and willingness to include Van Gennep's claim. If Van Gennep is suggesting that the funeral meal symbolizes the survivors' togetherness as they help the deceased complete this final rite of passage, in the same manner they had helped so often during the different stages of this person's life, his position seems correct.

In one of its pronouncements about Cajun life, Cajun Country notes that in traditional Cajun culture "hospitality and conviviality were foremost, with the house acting as the center of social life" (226). Even though funeral homes have altered the practices of home wakes, people still conduct large-scale gatherings at the home when a person dies. Perhaps the time of the meeting has moved from before the burial to after it, but the practice still remains for many Cajun families. Combining the core values of family, the social framework of cooperation, and the vernacular approach to religion and religious practices, the gathering of the extended family and close friends at the home following the burial stands as an intriguing and representative folk practice of the region and, more specifically, a rich example of its folk religious practices.

Of course, at its core, the bereavement meal employs the symbolic nature of food and food sharing. In addition to the ritualistic practice of preparing and serving specialized food, such as funeral cakes, many people recognize the sharing of food as an important part of the funeral and burial process. Kathlyn Gay and Martin Gay explain that "after most funerals in North America, it is customary for bereaved family members and friends to gather and share a meal" (Gay and Gay 1996: 118). Built on "carry-ins"--the dishes prepared by volunteers--the meals become a symbol of unity. However, the short description offered by Gay and Gay does not capture the extent of ritualized sharing that occurs, nor the mood surrounding one of these occasions as it unfolds in Louisiana. Gathering for a meal and visit after burial services stands as a widespread practice throughout the South (Brown 2009: 74-75), but in Louisiana, the bereavement visit is often quite gregarious. Home visits after a burial service extend far back in my father's and mother's families, but in my father's family, these visits include his entire family, stretch long into the afternoon or evening following the service, and often turn into joyous occasions of reconnecting with family members, marked by laughter and raucous play, rather than mourning marked by loud lamentations and overt signs of grief. This sort of extended and gregarious home visit only occurs following services of older members of the family. I cannot recall or imagine them occurring after a death one might consider extremely tragic or unexpected, such as an infant.

When my grandmother, mother of fourteen children and grandmother and great-grandmother of countless more, died at the age of 94, family members congregated at the family farm in Egan, Louisiana. The visit and meal after the burial was an enormous affair. When Uncle Mickey Cooper, who lived in Alexander, died in 2001, Aunt Lois (Uncle Mickey's wife and my dad's sister) opened their home. Since most of the relatives lived in south Louisiana and couldn't bring perishable food from home, they transported the food that would keep (like a tray of brownies or an ice chest full of sealed packages of boudin) and stopped by grocery stores and markets to buy the food that wouldn't (like a box of fried chicken or a sandwich tray from Albertson's). As people ate and drank, the kids played football in the backyard. The adult cousins, standing on the back porch and sitting in lawn chairs, caught up over beer or soda or water, while my dad's brothers and sisters, their spouses, and anyone else who wanted to sit in the air-conditioning visited inside over coffee, tea, or maybe even a little beer, too. When Uncle Elmo, one of my dad's brothers, passed in 2005, people gathered at Aunt Marie (Elmo's daughter) and Uncle Dickey's house in Iota. Food lined the tables, relatives took the opportunity to meet the new babies, and all the kids changed out of their church clothes or stayed in what they had on to climb the giant tree house and play center that wrapped itself around the oak in Uncle Dickey's backyard.

Knowing this pattern, I was not surprised as my dad, facing liver cancer not responding to treatment, arranged for the bereavement meal as he made the final arrangements for his burial services and funeral mass. He wanted his extended family to feel comfortable at his home and enjoy themselves, and he wanted my mother not to worry about it. He scheduled the repair of the air-conditioning unit and a leaky toilet in a bathroom off the living room. He wanted the gathering to be like the others in his family, and he knew that at most of these, at some point in the event, people drank a little something. He put away some money for beer and wine so that enough would be in the house to offer them. Typically, a grieving family would not be expected to cover this expense; however, he knew family members might not imbibe out of respect for my mother unless something was offered them, so he budgeted for this expense before he died. During the weekend my dad called his six sons and daughter to his home, my oldest brother, when he wasn't at my father's bedside, worked in the yard to prepare it for the company we all knew to be coming soon.4 My father died late that Saturday night, and in the time between my father's death and the funeral, my mother worked, as well, in preparing the home. She rearranged furniture, moved chairs from the dining room so people could walk around the dining room table that, she knew, would be covered with trays of food. She arranged an area in the breakfast room where older people could sit together. She "put out ashtrays for smokers and did some general tidying up" (LeJeune 2010). Her sisters came over to learn the layout of the kitchen, which drawers held what and what was tucked where in the back of the cabinets. She talked to the managers at Piggly Wiggly near her home about the possibility of visitors using the parking lot, but each year the Piggly Wiggly parking lot hosts the invading force that is the Grand Marias Mardi Gras. Our crowd wouldn't be a problem. Plus, they knew my dad.

Members of my immediate family began to call my father's living brother and sisters, the spouses of his deceased brothers and sisters, and a few nephews and nieces to whom he was closest. The brothers and sisters and their spouses called members of their own families. When my family members called the extended family again to tell them about the arrangements, they made sure to invite them to the home after the burial. For my brothers, my sister, and me, Monday meant work in cities other than Jennings, so a friend of the family came over that day. She brought a blank spiral notebook with a pen taped securely to the wires. She told my mother to go get some rest; she knew what to expect. Answering the door and taking the phone calls, she wrote down the names of people who called, visited, and brought over food. She took their numbers and their messages. Page after page filled, not only with the phone numbers of calls to return and messages of condolence and support, but also with the schedule of food—a list of dishes to be delivered to the home, the date and time each would arrive, and the person(s) responsible.

The organizational feat is impressive in its own right. Deliveries become organized, meals planned, needs met. Families can focus on something other than preparing meals for themselves and can count on a steady stream of visitors who will drop by to check on things. My parents spent forty-eight years as faithful parishioners of Our Lady Help of Christians Catholic Church, but it wouldn't matter if they had only spent four weeks. The Bereavement Group of Our Lady Help of Christians was formed to handle the needs of families facing the loss of a loved one, and the group is committed to heeding that call. A service group of women and some men willing to donate their time and pay dues to generate the necessary funds, the Bereavement Society prides itself on providing a full meal to the family on the day of the funeral.

The group takes great pains to ensure that for each death, a bread dish is assigned to one member, a couple of vegetable dishes to others, and a dessert or two to other members. Organized by a set schedule, the duties rotate. When it is a group member's turn, that person is called, given the grieving family's name and address, and told what to prepare and when to deliver it. The person chosen has the responsibility of buying ingredients, preparing the dish, and delivering it. The group uses funds from dues and other events to buy the meat, which someone from the group prepares and delivers. The size of the meal—for instance, the amount of meat that's cooked or the number of vegetable sides prepared—is adjusted to meet the needs of the family. A large family means more company and, as a result, a larger meal to be donated. The Bereavement Group carefully records the dish and time of delivery, and the group informs the grieving family. It is considered a failure of one’s duties not to make more than enough or to arrive at a time other than the one scheduled.

Food sharing following a death happens in plenty of other towns, in plenty of other churches. My aunt Earline Oliver, a parishioner of St. Michael's Catholic Church in Egan, belongs to her church's bereavement group known as St. Martha's Guild, after the Biblical figure who served and waited on Jesus while Mary sat in praise.5 "Some people might eat to live, but Cajuns live to eat," Aunt Earline told me. "Food's an important part of life here. Anytime there's a gathering, you [are] going to have food. This isn't different. (Oliver 2010). In fact, food becomes a central concern for families at this time.

With little time or inclination to shop for ingredients or prepare meals, grieving family members, usually all congregating at a single home, face the daunting task of feeding themselves. In addition, visitors stop by, and politeness dictates that they be offered at least a cup of coffee. Some of these visitors travel some distance, often making the deceased’s home their first stop in town, and families feel these guests deserve something more substantial than coffee. The large-scale meetings after the burial only intensify the challenges of feeding folks. The donation of food by family, friends, and groups helps to meet those challenges. Listing the many gifts of food to my family, from pounds of boudin donated by The Boudin King to a tray of cookies brought over by the mother of a high school friend, would not serve the discussion here, but citing one notable example might help to capture the nature of these large-scale visits to the home. After hearing of my father’s passing and having the experience of hosting Uncle Elmo—s bereavement meal, Aunt Marie drove in from Iota with two red commercial-sized coolers, equipped with wheels and lids, to keep the soda cold for all of the guests. One cooler stood in the kitchen, one in the living room as hand after hand reached inside for a coke, water, or something else cold to go with a plastic plate crammed with food.

Other gifts of food arrived on a steady schedule, all written in the notebook, but the food constituted only a part of the gift-sharing ritual. When Cousin Leonard came over to drop off the baked ham, macaroni and cheese, and baked beans prepared by his mother Aunt Margie, one of my dad's sisters-in-law, he brought along a framed memorial he made.a picture of my father standing with his brothers and sisters placed at the top of the memorial and a prayer titled "For Those We Love" written by Saint Ambrose of Milan placed at its bottom. My mother placed the object, along with a few cards and other tokens of my father's life, on a table for visitors to see. Not uncommon in many Cajun households, shrines are created to commemorate the deceased. One appeared at Uncle Elmo's visit and at Uncle Mickey Cooper's. For my grandmother, a table displayed her picture, a prayer book, and her rosary.

In addition to these examples of gift-sharing, my mother’s sisters gave enormous amounts of time and energy. Before the bereavement meal, they helped my mother clean her house. On the day of the funeral, they answered the door while the family was at the services. During the gathering, they arranged the platters of food, refilled trays, pulled punch and deli meats out of the refrigerator, kept the brisket warm and the bread fresh, emptied trash and washed dishes, and stayed after everyone left, to put my mother’s home in order. They swept away thanks like crumbs on the table or dirt they pushed with the broom. When they could tell the time was right, they left, and with them my mother sent the food she was able to force on them, so they could feed their own families who had spent the last few days with their momma or wife out of pocket.

Based on my own experiences, observations, and conversations with people, my father's family visits are larger than most others are. Moreover, for my father's family the importance of having these gatherings in a relative's home remains strong, and the tradition quite entrenched. Having said that, I realize that in many ways my experiences with my father's death do not seem all that unusual. Home visits and food sharing in these circumstances stand as practices well known to most Southerners.6 Harvey Dever explains the relationship his son--who is from Sulphur, Louisiana, but owns John's Bar in Breaux Bridge--forms through gift-sharing at these sorts of occasions: "What he serves on the dinner, he'll have." That'd be brisket cut up, and that bean meal, and one of them with the rice--every funeral...and his customers and all get that. They think he's God there. (2010). Interestingly, my family does not have a name for this event. I have termed it the bereavement meal or the "home visit" to distinguish it from the visitation at the funeral home, but during fieldwork for this project, I did encounter people who had a name for the practice.

Destinee Delahoussaye and her family are members of Christian Baptist Church in Lake Charles. I met her when I lectured students at St. Louis High School about folklore. When I asked the class if their families did anything after they buried someone, if they gathered at someone's home or had a meal together, she asked, "Oh, you mean like the repast?" Instead of gathering at a person's home, many people, possibly faced with space limitations or the cultural traditions of their own church, gather at a church's fellowship hall or multipurpose building for the occasion. She explained that in her church after someone dies, people gather at their fellowship hall and have a large meal for the family and church congregation. Each person or family brings a dish, and people get together to connect, but "it's kinda like a party. It's not sad" (Delahoussaye 2010). Destinee's use of repast becomes even more interesting when compared to Gaudet's discussion of funeral practices in Tales from the Levee. Gaudet uses the phrase "les repas de funeraire":

. . . relatives from neighboring areas would need a place to rest and eat before returning home. However, Van Gennep gives another explanation for les repas funéraire. He says it is the counterpart of the baptismal and wedding dinners . . . . (23)7

Most think of the word repast as meaning a meal. Repast, from the French paseure for "to feed," translates as "to feed again." Obviously, the term means something more than "a meal" or "to eat." The act is about service; it's about "feeding" those in need. "To feed" is exactly the act that friends and church members perform. In fact, the group is feeding the family "again" because, we can assume, they have fed them during the preparations for burial. Perhaps this focus on the term digresses too much, but the point seems clear. The act, especially when considering its name, focuses on interdependence of group members and each person's willingness to contribute in order to tend to one of its own. When I contacted Destinee's mother about her church's tradition, she explained that the repast communicates "the continuity of life" (Mathews 2010). In the home or in the fellowship hall, the bereavement meal becomes a symbolic statement of togetherness and control, the merging of the sacred and the secular.

In fact, moving the repast to church fellowship halls does seem to be a trend building momentum. Several people mentioned that they noticed this change.8 Perhaps this shift indicates a change in the community itself. As populations grow larger, holding such events in the home becomes impractical, if not impossible. Yet, removed from the home and occurring in the steel and cinderblock of multipurpose buildings, a scholar surely wonders if the event loses some of its fundamental components that make it engaging. Perhaps the move does lessen the event in some way, perhaps not. Either way, the gathering deserves attention. First, the event embodies the traits of Louisiana's cultural Catholicism. In addition, even for non-Catholics, the repast relies on those core cultural values so many scholars have argued as fundamental to south Louisiana: family, religion, sociability, and traditionalism. Finally, the event deserves study not for its unusual nature and rarity but for its ordinariness and prevalence, not for its oppositional or "folk religious" character but for its alignment with the "official church."

Building on Don Yoder's work on folk religion, a great many of the articles concern Louisiana folk religious practices that exist "apart from and alongside the strictly theological body" (Yoder 1974: 2-15). On occasion, scholars misconstrue this discussion to mean practices unsanctioned by the "official" religion or opposing the "official" religion hierarchy, belief system, or tenets. However, this approach stifles studies in folk religion or "cultural Catholicism," while a focus on how the belief system is lived, experienced, and expressed in everyday life may offer different insight into a culture, as many scholars have argued (Tyson, Peacock, and Patterson 1988, Primiano 1995, Gaudet 1997). Second, studies on Louisiana folk religion tend toward examining those events that are most unusual, or practices that seem particularly tied to place or exist far beyond "conventional" practices. The desire to document the blessing of the shrimp fleet or Dulac's "Living Way of the Cross" is strong, and should be. These interesting and powerful expressions of identity warrant considerable study, but neglecting other small-scale observances and less idiosyncratic religious practices obscures a large segment of the cultural Catholicism practiced in Louisiana, perhaps diminishing the usefulness and function of folk studies on the subject.9 It may also skew the depiction of the culture here. The richness of the region’s cultural Catholicism, the depth and pervasiveness of its belief system and that system’s role in shaping the culture.calls for scholarship that celebrates a variety of folk practices, the unusual and the ordinary.


Ancelet, Barry Jean, Jay D. Edwards, and Glen Pitre. 1991. Cajun Country. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.

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1. Of course, other families and other churches have similar practices, but this article follows my family, which is Cajun and Catholic, so it examines the event in this context.

2. Other than the specific interviews mention in this article, fieldwork for this project comes from many collecting sessions. One of these was a project involving approximately forty-five St. Louis High School students who conducted interviews with parents and grandparents about their recollections of funeral and burial practices.

3. In my interviews about funeral and burial practices, this statement about the wakes being in the home stood by far to be the most common and usually the very first piece of information they shared.

4. On that Thursday night, my eldest brother arrived from Baton Rouge and saw my father's condition. He called his repairperson and yardman, Joe Kidd, and asked if he would drive in from Baton Rouge that Saturday to help him with the yard. Joe Kidd came in with a helper, worked all day long, and refused to be paid. I will never forget this act of generosity.

5 In my experience, Cajun Catholics fully comprehend the message of this biblical story; they figure, too, that Jesus had nothing against hard work and realize there are limits to all things, even the stagnation brought on by awe and wonder, especially if a funeral is to be planned or if company's coming.

6. See Kathlyn Gay and Martin Gay's Encyclopedia of North American Eating and Drinking: Traditions, Customs, and Rites.

7 Gaudet's citation here is "Ibid., II, 652."

8, Both Kevin Klein, the director for Miquez Funeral Home, and Cherie LeJeune mentioned this.

9. For a discussion on the form, meaning, and function of small group gatherings, see Linda T. Humphrey's "Small Group Festive Gatherings" in Journal of the Folklore Institute.

This article was first published in the 2010 Louisiana Folklore Miscellany. Keagan LeJeune is a folklorist who teaches at McNeese State University.