What is it about belonging to a big family that makes you want to go to the funeral of a cousin you may not have seen in many years and whose children you wouldn’t recognize? I drove to Baton Rouge today for the funeral of my cousin, Phyllis (Zu) Songy Hingle. She was ten years older than I, the same age as my sister Gayle who died last year. Just as it was for my sister’s funeral, cousins gathered at the church, hugged and kissed each other, even those that we had not positively identified until after they spoke—thinking a younger brother was the older brother, and remarking on how much they both looked like their father who died 15 years ago. Just as it is now for most of the funerals in the extended Songy family, Father Bully (Monsignor James Buell Songy), my late mother’s cousin, celebrates the Mass and talks to all of us as someone who truly knows what it means to share the love and the grief of family members. He mentions things in particular about the person whose life we’re celebrating—things perhaps not known to the very young people there who were closest to her, but wonderful memories among the extended family.
“Extended family” in French, Catholic south Louisiana means much more than distant relatives. Families were traditionally very large—my mother was one of 10 children, and my father was one of 9 children. I have (or had at one time) 67 first cousins. I also have 4 sisters and 2 brothers, and my parents had 27 grandchildren. While my father had only a few first cousins, my mother made up for this lack with a bumper crop of Songy cousins, tantes, and oncles. Along with spouses, partners, children, and grandchildren, the “family” numbers well into the hundreds. Trying to get this many people together on a regular basis would be a formidable task, but when a family member passes away, the call to “just let you know” does not go unheeded.
A friend asked me if I was “close” to this cousin. I said “yes,” before I realized that the only times I had seen her in the last twenty years, except at funerals, was at a family reunion in 1989, the 90th birthday party for my mother in 1996, and at a later family gathering at Evergreen Plantation. But, like all our cousins, we were always really happy to see each other, and we kept up with what was going on in the lives of this extensive family. For the past few years, the family has come together at funerals once or twice a year, driving in from all parts of Louisiana and beyond. As we mourn, remember, and celebrate the life of the family member who has passed away, we also renew those binding, indelible ties of kinship that make us who we are.
Father Bully reminded us in his eulogy of the words of Tevye, the fiddler (from Fiddler on the Roof) about Tradition. Tevye says, “Without our traditions our lives would be as shaky as… as a fiddler on the roof!” But our lives are unavoidably a series of departures from tradition as well, as we also develop new ties, new interests, new relationships, new generations. Death inevitably means change—and the necessity for adapting to change in order to go on with hope for the future. During this time of transition, the values and traditions of a shared past bring big families together for a final rite of passage. It is a ritual of memory and love.
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