Being Dead is No Excuse: The Official Southern Ladies Guide to Hosting The Perfect Funeral
Hyperion Press, 2005
Reviewed by Penne J. Laubenthal
Straight out of the Mississippi Delta, Being Dead is No Excuse is a delightful foray into what could be considered by some (but certainly not Southerners) to be a not so delightful subject—funerals. Southerners have a peculiar affection for funerals. As a matter of fact, I have a friend who would literally have to be in her grave to miss a funeral.
In Eudora Welty’s short story “The Wide Net” what starts out to be a massive search and seining of the river for a young woman who is supposed to have “up and drowned herself” turns into a glorious fish fry and hoe down. Everyone finds out the next day that the young woman had not drowned herself at all but had merely pretended to. According to Welty, the story illustrates the nature of people to join together in celebration, whether the occasion is one of joy or sorrow.
Funerals provide an opportunity for folks to gather together, comfort the grieving, re-live old memories, laugh, cry, and eat, eat, eat. Being Dead is No Excuse is a compendium of delectable Delta recipes, especially those suitable for funerals. “When somebody dies in the Delta,” observed Eleanor Vicks, “ you automatically take stuffed eggs and a bottle of wine. Unless you’re Methodist and then you just take stuffed eggs.” But Being Dead is not just a book of Southern recipes, far from it. It is a delicious excursion into how one makes a proper exit from this life in the Deep South. Spread between the recipes like a scrumptious filling for finger sandwiches are stories about the Southern way of passing on to that big plantation in the sky.
Southerners are respectful of the dead, but they are even more aware of the needs of the living. According to Metcalf and Hays, “The funeral is always a time of stress, and everyone knows you need two things: friends and alcohol.” One particularly hilarious chapter in the book explores the differences between Methodists and Episcopalians (or Whiskeypalians, as we called them when I was growing up). According to the book, “When a Methodist dies, you don’t know if you will get a cocktail or almond tea.” Such is not the case with the Episcopalians. “You practically have to be on the list for your second liver transplant before a Southern Episcopalian notices that you drink too much.”
Following the funeral, there may be cauldrons of hot coffee, pitchers of iced tea, or discreet glasses of wine, but there is always the very best food and plenty of it—such as Bourbon Boiled Custard, Tomato Aspic with Homemade Mayonnaise (in the Delta one cannot be buried without stuffed eggs and tomato aspic), Green Bean Casserole, Bing Cherry Salad with Coca Cola, and the ubiquitous Cheese Straws. Being Dead offers a list of the top ten funeral dishes which include such favorites as Fried Chicken, Virginia’s Butter Beans, and Homemade Rolls (not forgetting the aforementioned stuffed eggs and tomato aspic.)
Funerals are serious business in the South and it takes a village to do one properly. Metcalf and Hays suggest that if you are not overly concerned with immortality but you are serious about your send off, you might want to become a communicant of St. James Episcopal Church before it is too late. St. James apparently does funerals up right. When my Methodist mother died twelve years ago this month, my sister and I spoke at her service, wearing our hats, of course. I told amusing stories about my mother’s wonderful life, including one that involved our discussing her choice of liturgy. Mother had told me that she wanted the Parable of the Good Woman read at her funeral just as it had been read at my sainted grandmother’s funeral. I said to her “I certainly don’t want it read at mine.” My mother wryly replied, “You don’t need to worry.” Because we Methodists are inordinately fond of “Amazing Grace,” my brother-in-law, blues musician Billy C Farlow, played “Amazing Grace” on the harmonica. According to Being Dead, “Amazing Grace” is not a hymn you will hear in the Episcopal Church. After mother’s service, a friend came up to me and declared it was the most fun he had ever had at a funeral. In the South, we are not irreverent. We simply seize every opportunity for celebration.
As Metcalf and Hays observe about Southerners: “We are people with a strong sense of community, and being dead is no impediment to belonging to it. We won’t forget you just because you up and died. We might even like you better and visit you more often.”