OPINION: In Mississippi, death isn’t confined to the old or the casket

By Sonny Scott

When a young person dies, the funeral home will be swamped with mourners. Friends queue up patiently to grieve with the survivors. If the deceased is a teenager, his age mates will crowd around – the boys looking embarrassed, while the girls hug each other and shed copious tears.
When an old person passes, visitations are sparsely attended. Old school mates and friends go by for a chance to visit with family and for a chance to see old acquaintances in town for the funeral. Perfunctory expressions of condolence are acknowledged with, “Yes, we’ll miss him, of course, but we’d not wish him back in suffering,” etc. Memories are shared, and laughter ripples.
If a contemporary of the deceased appears, leaning on cane, lingering before the bier, gazing at the friend of a lifetime, laughter dies and conversation becomes muted. When the old person moves reluctantly on, tears spilling from cataract-dimmed eyes to the crevices of weathered face, on-lookers are quiet and duly embarrassed. Few step up to speak, much less to offer condolence.
A young widow may love again. A bereaved teen will certainly know other friends. But for this mourner who vainly looks around for another of his own age; who has laughed with, loved, fought, and reconciled with the one in the casket; whose hearing, sight, sense of smell and taste have left him; whose eyesight is dim and legs unsteady; whose remaining joys are few and diminished by the loss of this friend – could a day be more cheerless? Is there hope for happiness tomorrow or comfort today?
We stand by in silence, and offer no word. What is there to say? Our glib expressions of sympathy seem profane in the face of such utter misery and despair.
The poet Ogden Nash wrote: “People expect old men to die … People watch with unshocked eyes; But the old men know when an old man dies.”
Karl Marx was wrong about many things, but he was right about one thing: Over-production is a big problem for an industrial society. Not only do we produce more goods than we can profitably consume, but we produce more people than society can find a useful role for.
Visiting relatives in the Mississippi Delta during my youth left a set of indelible memories, and from time to time, I yearn to drive through the region to remember, and to note the contrasts between today’s Delta, and that of the early 50’s. Mississippi’s best writers have employed adjectives by the score trying to do justice to that enchanting region: “fecund … brooding …implacable…haunting … achingly beautiful …timeless,” etc. You have to go there from time to time to appreciate the daunting task of committing an adequate description to paper.
On New Year’s Day, I rode through Issaquena County. As mile after flat mile of Highway 1 fell behind, the sense that this was different from the Delta I knew kept gnawing at my consciousness. “This is beautiful,” I remarked to my wife. “It seems like the very essence of the Delta, but not like the Delta.” And then, it hit me: the people were gone.
Issaquena is the least populous county in Mississippi. The numerous small towns with people loitering around stores, beer joints, parking lots, and strolling aimlessly along the streets, so characteristic of the Delta, don’t exist here. Modern agriculture is mechanized, efficient, and its labor requirements are almost negligible. Somehow, the landowners of Issaquena have induced the unneeded hands to relocate. The result is a landscape of breath-taking beauty without the jarring poverty so typical of the rest of the region.
Where did the people go? I don’t know the particulars, but I know the pattern. People whose parents and grandparents farmed this lush land now live in Memphis, East St. Louis, Chicago, Gary, Beloit, Detroit, etc. Some work there, and some wander aimlessly in urban squalor, as do their cousins in the small town bleakness of Tchula, Belzoni, and Hollandale. Sweat equity, if it exists, accrues slowly.
Producing massive quantities of goods has proved relatively easy. Finding meaning in life and dignity for displaced workers is much harder. Maybe that’s why there are so many church buildings along the bayous and back roads of this mesmerizing land… and so many beer joints around its crossroads.

Sonny Scott resides in Chickasaw County. Contact him at sonnyscott@yahoo.com.