Excerpted from "Being Dead Is No Excuse: The Official Southern Ladies Guide to Hosting the Perfect Funeral" with permission from Miramax Books.

Anyone in our neck of the woods who is not counting on immortality might want to give serious thought to taking the appropriate steps to become a communicant of St. James' Episcopal Church, before it is too late. No, belonging to St. James' won't necessarily get you into heaven. But it will ensure that you have a tasteful sendoff. Great vestments. No tacky hymns. St. James' sets liturgical standards for the Ark-La-Miss region (as the tristate area is known). St. James' is traditional and eschews novelty, though after members of the church vestry were impressed by the televised funeral of a female notable at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., a verger was added. Who could resist a verger? But other than that, St. James' rarely changes so much as the position of a candlestick. Even the acolytes look the same from generation unto generation. That is because they are frequently the sons and nephews of previous acolytes. St. James' feels it has achieved liturgical perfection on earth. Ladies from the altar guild have been known to visit the Vatican only to sniff, "That's not how it's done at St. James'."

A nice funeral is good for everybody. If the family has been through a long, painful sickness, it's a chance to pull themselves together, spruce up, sober up, and put on their best dark clothes (white is acceptable during the Delta summer) and bid the dearly departed a formal farewell. We begin planning our funerals well in advance, not infrequently leaving behind detailed instructions. St. James' ability to offer parishioners the comforting knowledge that a dignified exit awaits them may be a central factor in maintaining its high membership rolls. Marguerite Blanton, who bragged that her family had been Episcopalians since the Crucifixion, once got so furious with the rector that she briefly entertained the notion of joining a band of renegade Episcopalians who held Sunday services in the community center. It was only the thought of her funeral being held at the community center that stopped Marguerite dead (so to speak) in her tracks. "You know," Marguerite said, "that's just not me."

Simply being dead doesn't mean you no longer care about social status.
Southern Episcopalians wear their devoutness lightly. That's one reason they excel at funerals. They have a knack of comfortably mixing the formal and the casual, the proper and the relaxed (or perhaps the proper and the highly improper). Nowhere has this sensibility been better summed up than in the immortal words of Anne Dudley Hunt. (Of course, she was Anne Dudley Something-Else at the time.) One Easter Even-that's Episcopalian for the day before Easter-Anne Dudley was hobbling around the kitchen, bravely dyeing Easter Eggs, despite her knees, which were bruised black and blue. "I just don't know," Anne Dudley said. "Did I hurt my knees yesterday afternoon doing the Stations of the Cross? Or did I do it falling down drunk last night?" That, in a nutshell, is the spirit of Southern Episcopalianism. (To her credit, Anne Dudley remains a loyal daughter of St. James', even though the bishop put his foot down and flatly refused to let her have her fourth wedding there. The fifth time, she was too proud to ask.)

Greenville Episcopalians are sensitive enough to know that simply being dead doesn't mean you no longer care about social status. Nobody wants an ill-attended funeral. (If you look carefully, you'll notice older people moving their lips as they quietly count heads.) St. James' turns out in full force for its own. Penniless little old ladies and bank presidents alike get a nice turnout. For a really big funeral, dual membership-in St. James' and Alcoholics Anonymous-is the ticket. Episcopalians who have belonged to AA attract a standing-room-only crowd, without increasing the liquor bill for the reception. St. James' is so welcoming of mourners that, at a funeral, even if you accidentally sit in somebody else's pew, nobody gets really mad. (This doesn't hold true on other holidays, such as Christmas Eve, that attract the once-a-year worshipers; then regulars get their noses out of joint if they find a stranger in their pew) A big St. James' funeral is well worth a lifetime of polishing altar brass and needle-pointing kneelers. (You don't have to go to church every Sunday, but the minister's honorarium should be handsomer for the parishioner who's darkening the door for the first time in years in a coffin.)

You might think that by now all the St. James' selling points have been enumerated. They haven't. In addition to the dignified ambience and many other attractive features, St. James' is right across the street from the old Greenville cemetery. Talk about location, location, location. The walk over, after the church portion of the obsequies, is picturesque, especially in the fall, when you're not sweating bullets from the Delta heat. Nice English-county feel, which is popular in the Delta. The locale is also convenient for a reception, which is often held for family and friends in the parish hall. It follows the ceremony, and the "death committee" (more formally known as the Pastoral Care Committee) is in charge.

What about the Methodists?

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