By Dr. Curtis Varnell
Arkansas people, in fact people everywhere, are products of their upbringing and their cultural past. Most of our beliefs, many of our sayings, and virtually all of our traditions are hand-me downs from our ancestors.
Nowhere is this more evident than in some of the traditions surrounding the most important events in our lives; birth, marriage, and death. In our region, it is commonly believed that birth order brings good or bad luck with the seventh child having especially good luck. My father was born with a caul or covering over his face that was removed by the midwife who immediately declared he would be special and blessed throughout life.
Others felt that during pregnancy, one must avoid certain activities such as handling dead animals or you would permanently mark the child. My oldest uncle was born without a left ear, something my grandmother was sure was caused by her pulling her hair back from her left ear while skinning a squirrel.
Marriage contained all kinds of odd and unusual customs including the chivaree. Chivaree is virtually unheard of today but was a noisy celebration by unwanted guests who showed up at the newly-weds home in the middle of the night with horns, tin cans, pots and anything else that could be beat upon to produce noise. Sometimes, guns were fired into the air as the riotous crowd forced their way into the home to wreak havoc on the new couple.
My parents, Ray and Lavada Trusty, Duck (Ed) and Pat Rhineheart, and Ewell and Betty Bowman all got married around the same time. People from around the community gave them a joint chivaree. The bridegroom was especially put upon by the group, sometimes ridden on a greased rail, dunked in a water barrel, or worse. Our group got away fairly easily; they just had to push their wives around the house in a wheel barrow and then share in the refreshments brought by the revelers; all at about one in the morning.
Until recently, rules surrounding death and burial were the most prescribed rituals. When a person became seriously ill, family members would have a period of “setting” up or remaining with the person until death arrived.
Upon death, the body was prepared by the mortuary for burial and then was brought back to the home for several days of viewing. Everyone wanted to be buried on Sunday if possible so this was sometimes an extended wake. The body was placed in the parlor and family members would sit around the coffin and exchange life experiences. People from miles around would pay respects and bring food to the grieving family. When the burial date arrived, everyone in the community would show up at the church for the ceremony which consisted of several songs, primarily of a religious nature but sometimes a good country and western tune thrown in, and then the sermon.
It is terribly bad luck to stop a funeral procession; a custom that probably resulted in a police escort to the cemetery. In Arkansas, all vehicles pull over as a sign of respect to the dead. All dead were faced with the head to the west, feet to the east as prescribed in Matthew 24: 27. Times changed and our language even reflects that change. To show we are more modern and do not hold wakes in our house, or parlors name has been changed to the “living room” and we take our deceased to be cared for and the viewings at the funeral “parlor.”
What a strange group of people we are!!!