Funeral Dinners Help Darrington Cope With Losses

Apr 7, 2014

Darrington Community Center hosted a meal for librarian Linda McPherson as part of the community's long-running tradition.
Darrington Community Center hosted a meal for librarian Linda McPherson as part of the community's long-running tradition.
Credit KUOW Photo/Ruby de Luna

The first wave of memorial services honoring the victims who perished in the Oso landslide took place this weekend.

In Darrington, residents gathered to remember Linda McPherson, a longtime resident and librarian. After the service, the community gathered for a meal together. It's a special tradition that goes back many decades in this small community.

On Saturday afternoon, the Darrington Community Center was a hive of activity. Half a dozen women pulled food hot out of the oven — pans of pulled pork, chicken, casseroles and other donated food that will feed the people who have come for the service.

In the background, Ernestine Jones, 81, stood and watched the kitchen orchestration. The funeral dinners, as they've come to be known, go all the way back to the 1950s. They started out of necessity.

"There was no place for people to eat after a funeral," said Jones, who was one of the early members. "There's a little burger bar, and I think they have food at the tavern sometimes."

So the community began hosting funeral dinners for the families.

Flowers placed outside the Darrington Community Center.
Flowers placed outside the Darrington Community Center.
Credit KUOW Photo/Ruby de Luna

Jones is one of the volunteers who organizes, cooks and serves these meals. No one leaves hungry, or empty handed, she said. She admits she never liked to cook. She doesn't think she's good at it. But she does it anyway because it brings comfort, and it's worth it for the families. 

"It's not something that you go pull out of a box, and heat up," she said. "You peel those potatoes and it’s worth the time to make it taste good.” 

The dinners started out for funerals, but over the years, they've become a regular community event, said Carol Massingale.

"Sometimes we have a 'happy day' celebration for all of us to get together," Massingale said. "We have an auction and that helps raise money for the funeral dinners. It's a happy time, instead of a funeral time."

The community has embraced the tradition. When a funeral dinner is scheduled, word gets out fast.

"We call our ladies, then each one of our ladies has a list," Massingale said. "They call about seven or eight people and all those people bring a dish."

Saturday's dinner, though, was different. Nearby communities donated food and home-cooked meals. Arlington residents came to help out and provide additional support.

After the dinner, Cyndi Pugh helped clean up. She stood at the sink, washing pans, and recalled McPherson's kindness. "When a bunch of us started homeschooling our students, Linda was fabulous — making sure that the library was open before library time for us to teach classes."

Pugh started volunteering at the funeral dinners in 2004 after a car accident. Initially it was for physical therapy, a way to get exercise for her hand.

But she's become a regular since then. Pugh says the dinners bring comfort to families. Two years ago, she found comfort, too, when her brother passed away. 

"When you're with people that are grieving and you're helping them, you're healing — yourself and them," she said. "So this is where we come."

Pugh says they can’t make the pain go away, but through food they can make sure families are sustained through a tough time.