2016-06-30
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? Read more >>

Historically, Methodists are better behaved than Episcopalians. Lucy Mattie Trigg, who grew up as a Methodist preacher's daughter in Aberdeen, Mississippi (a town that, sad to say, is in the hill country and therefore not part of the more convivial Delta), remembered her Episcopal sister-in-law, who wasn't very devout, and who used to come and visit. This in-law could shock everybody merely by going upstairs, turning on the Victrola, and dancing. She wasn't blood kin, so nobody could tell the infidel to stop. The family had to sit in stony silence in the parlor below as she desecrated the house.

From a social point of view, the Episcopalians and the Presbyterians, located a block away from each other, are competitive. Episcopalians who get mad at the rector zip over to the Presbyterian church until things cool down. When an elderly gentleman returned to St. James' after one such absence, parishioners noticed that he had pierced an ear. "That's what happens if you become a Presbyterian," everybody chortled, though there's absolutely no evidence that elderly Presbyterians are any more predestined to pierce their ears than elderly Episcopalians.

"You can always tell when a Methodist dies-there are lots of casseroles."
Though a number of old planter families still hew to the religion of the Wesley brothers, and there is certainly no spiritual or theological animosity, the culinary competition between the Episcopal ladies and the Methodist ladies is cutthroat. Episcopalians are snooty because they spurn cake mixes and canned goods, without which there would be no such thing as Methodist cuisine. Methodist ladies do great things with the contents of cans and boxes. If a survey were done of the winners of Pillsbury Bake-Offs, ten to one the majority would be Methodists. The casserole is the most characteristically Methodist foodstuff.

"You can always tell when a Methodist dies-there are lots of casseroles," said Lucy Mattie Trigg. A Methodist lady grocery-shops by wheeling her cart down the aisles and grabbing every can in sight. Her pantry looks like an arsenal, but she has on hand the makings of a fine casserole any time of the day or night. Because of this reliance on canned goods, the sodium content of Methodist funeral cuisine is high. If several Methodists die in a row, the ladies of the church complain that they can't get their wedding rings on; their fingers are too swollen. Methodist cooking, the mother lode of Greenville funerary fare, is delicious, but you must overcome snobbery and embrace canned soup, their favorite ingredient. The Methodist culinary genius might be summed up this way: Now you're cookin' with Campbell's. It should be noted that, when in a group, Episcopal ladies say they are purists and turn up their noses at Chicken Lasagna Florentine, a bubbly, cheesy concoction with everything from sour cream to buttered pecans, a Methodist favorite guaranteed to produce another funeral in short order. When polled anonymously, however, many Episcopalians admit to a secret preference for the eclectic Methodist goo. Fried chicken, though ecumenical, is yet another Methodist specialty, the dish traditionally served when the preacher comes to Sunday lunch.

The cookbooks put out by the Greenville Methodists abound in such treats as Hot Dog Stew, which the average St. James' cook would ostentatiously pass up-in public. While not entirely appropriate for a funeral, Hot Dog Stew, no doubt, helps Methodists weed out the (literally) faint of heart from their flock. Methodist cooking is definitely not for those who've recently had bypass surgery, unless they're angling to be the honoree at the next funeral.

A Methodist burial service is not quite in the same league with one at St. James'. There are robes rather than embroidered vestments and no rosy-cheeked acolytes. The Methodists are sort of the in-between church-not as formal as Episcopalians, yet not as rollicking as Baptists. "Methodists are frustrated Baptists who'd like to be Episcopalians," said Lucy Mattie Trigg. That is: They'd like to whoop and holler, but they are not deaf to the clarion call of upward mobility. When Methodists make the move to St. James', they must learn restraint. "They're never too peppy at the Episcopal church," sneered Lucy Mattie, who visits occasionally with her son, now vying for a place on the vestry. At St. James', it would be truly amazing if you were put away to the tune of "Amazing Grace," a Methodist top ten. The elegiac "Oh, God, Our Help in Ages Past" is about as jolly as Episcopalians get.

Methodists are addicted to potluck events, a propensity manifesting itself in the funeral lunch at the church. There is a real sense of community, with all the ladies bringing their favorite casseroles or desserts. It's a nice way to take the burden off the family. But an ex-Methodist, now firmly ensconced at St. James', feels perhaps a bit too much of the burden is lifted. A few years at St. James' have attuned her to the finer things in mourning. "I arrived [at a Methodist funeral] with my horseradish mousse on a cut-glass pedestal stand, and there were all these.Pyrex dishes," she sputtered. Everybody has to look down on somebody: For Methodists, there are Baptists. "The Baptists put little bitty marshmallows on their congealed salads," complained Methodist Lucy Mattie.

A final question: If you die a Methodist, will your friends and family enjoy the consolation of a nice, stiff cocktail? Delta Methodists are part Delta and part Methodist, which means they like a toddy now and then. Still, they aren't quite as imbued with-how shall we put it?-the cavalier spirit as Episcopalians. The Episcopalian ideal of a gentleman is a man who, if a lady falls down drunk, will pick her up off the floor and freshen up her drink. You practically have to be on the list for your second liver transplant before a Southern Episcopalian notices that you drink too much. They're not called Whiskypalians for nothing.

When a Methodist dies, you don't know if you're going to get bourbon or almond tea. If the family does break down and serve alcohol, they're likely to get a disapproving look when the minister comes to call. He will probably cast his disapproving gaze especially at the Episcopal minister, who, if paying a courtesy call, will fairly leap at the chance of a cocktail. When a Methodist minister drinks, it's for "purely medicinal purposes." If you feel your family will be so devastated by your departure that they'll require the solace of strong drink, join St. James'. Immediately.

Click here to read some favorite Southern funeral recipes.

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