Denise Gee Essay Series: “Brights of Passage”

A heart-shape arrangement of pink, red, and cream roses resting against a tree

Funny thing about funerals: some are actually funny. Others practically live in infamy.

I laughed thinking about this after reading Being Dead Is No Excuse (Hyperion Press, 2005), an amusing cookbook full of great stories by Mississippians Gayden Metcalfe and Charlotte Hays.

Join me as I share a few favorite passages from the book along with a dollop of my own family experiences.

~*~

“After the solemnity of the church service and finality of the grave, the people of the Mississippi Delta are just dying to get into the house of the bereaved for the reception. Sometimes we talk bad about the deceased between the grave and the aspic, but we straighten up when we get to the house. … Speaking of aspic, serving it is a must with homemade mayonnaise—without which you practically can’t get a death certificate.”
G.M. & C.H.

~*~

1922, Melville, Louisiana—A hundred years ago, the funeral of a distant cousin, Willis Artemis White, wound up being what one might call “a bust.”

With it being summertime in Louisiana’s sugar cane country, Mrs. White requested that her husband’s coffin be placed on the shady end of their home’s weathered (read: rickety) front porch.

“Are you sure you want visitation out here?” the minister inquired, perspiration dripping from his forehead.

“Well, I’m sorry we didn’t have time to paint,” Mrs. White chided as she survey the bedraggled floorboards.

 “No,” the pastor said, pressing his foot against the spongey floorboards. “I mean … ”

“Oh,” she said, catching his drift. “Those wretched little white flies—such a nuisance.” (The word “termites” was avoided like the plague.) “Our farmhand fortified that end of the porch with some lumber from the barn, and a few stacks of bricks.” She patted the worried-looking minister’s arm. “All is fine.”

As the mourners paid their respects indoors and out, the porch creaked and moaned. The groaning escaped their notice, but not the minister’s—he soon caught sight of something that made him clean his glasses to be sure of what he was seeing.

The casket was listing starboard.

Time, he knew, was of the essence.

“Will everyone please gather out front?” he said loudly, comforting the guests with pats resembling shoves. “Quickly, please, if you don’t mind!”

Those assembled followed his directions, quickly filling the folding chairs on the lawn while murmuring in confusion. The porch began readjusting itself to the lighter load. It emitted a grumbling grunt, then a deep thud.

The minister asked for Mrs. White to be fetched from the kitchen, where she was cooking for the reception to follow. Still wearing an apron over her black mourning dress, she was rushed through the front door and seated squarely in front. She shot the minister a bewildered look. The service wasn’t supposed to begin for another 25 minutes.

“Let us pray,” the pastor said, before launching into Isaiah 41:8–13, read at an auctioneer’s clip.

“Do not fear for I am with you … I will strengthen you … I will uphold you with my righteous right hand … I will …”  

Kapow!

The section of porch beneath Mr. White’s coffin gave way, sending the flower-festooned guest of honor to the ground below and the reverend lunging for a nearby column.

A gasp arose from the mourners. Several of Mr. White’s brothers rushed toward the calamity as Mrs. White sat in shock. “He’s OK!” one of them yelled (as if being dead is being OK). By that, everyone knew the worst hadn’t happened—Ole Willis was still in his casket, albeit a tad disheveled.

With a sly smile, another brother broke the awkward silence.

“Willis always did enjoy being the center of attention!”

The ensuing laughter added much-needed levity to the social debacle.

 “Well, now,” Mrs. White chimed in, playing along. “Willis will have none of his favorite pie after that escapade!”

~*~

“Coffins are so expensive nowadays, we know somebody who bought his online—he put it in the corner of the living room and tried it on for size several times. ‘You always want to be comfortable,’ he said, adding, ‘I plan to spend a lot of time in it.’” —G.M. & C.H.

~*~

1995, Natchez, Mississippi—After the church service of a family friend, my husband’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Peacock, veered from the funereal light brigade of cars for a pit stop at their home, not far from the cemetery.

Mr. Peacock admonished his wife for the unexpected detour: “Now, we won’t get a good parking spot.”

“Oh, George, we won’t be that late,” she said, rushing to visit the euphemism (aka powder room).

Once back on track, the Peacocks were relieved to find said good parking spot—but not to see that the graveside service was already in progress. Grousing quietly while walking solemnly toward those assembled, Mrs. Peacock, being hard of hearing, led her husband to the front of the crowd so she could hear what was being said.

Once firmly encamped, she and her husband smiled sweetly and sympathetically toward the family members seated under the tent.

But wait—whose family? They searched for familiar faces, but none could be found. The unfamiliar faces gazed back.

“Oh. My. Stars,” Mrs. Peacock whispered to her dearly beloved. “We’re at the wrong funeral!”

The couple looked at each other in wide-eyed surprise before Mrs. Peacock covered her face with her hands, stifling an embarrassed laugh. To others, she seemed to be muffling a sob. To one, the deceased man’s wife, she was a point of concern. Who is that mysterious woman so overcome with grief? How did she know my husband?

Mr. Peacock took his wife by the arm and began backing away from the group. Once in the clear, they sheepishly headed toward their car.

“Well, Edith, thankfully we got a good parking spot,” Mr. Peacock said as they drove away laughing.

~*~

“There’s one family so intent on remembering Mama that they insisted on having her photographed in her coffin. The photographer balked but was finally persuaded. Afterward, the family refused to pay. The eldest son explained why. ‘Mama looked so sad.’”
G.M. & C.H.

~*~

2003, Bunkie, Louisiana—Scene: My mother’s graveside service at Pythian Cemetery.

Elderly cousin: “Goodness me, those are the most beautiful blooms.”

Me: “Thank you. Mama always loved heirloom flowers.”

Her: “Well, I do, too. And those are just dreamy. Just … dreamy.”

Her [mustering courage]: “Say, dear, would you mind if I took some of the flowers home with me? I’m having a dinner party tonight, and they’d make a gorgeous centerpiece.”

Her [sensing I needed convincing]: “I mean, it would be a shame to see such pretty flowers get covered with dirt.”

Her [sensing the need for a stronger selling point]: “The centerpiece would, of course, be in your mother’s honor. And we would toast to her. Besides, she always did love a good party.”

~*~

“One friend, on being thanked for attending a funeral, said, “No, thank you! I wouldn’t have missed it for the world!” —G.M. & C.H.


In our 2022 essay series, author Denise Gee shares memories and personal tales that celebrate the inimitable joys and escapades of Southern life. A Natchez, Mississippi, native, she is the author of six acclaimed books on Southern entertaining and design. Denise has worked for decades as a writer, editor, and stylist for magazines including Southern LivingBetter Homes and Gardens, and Coastal Living—and now, Southern Lady. She and her photographer-husband, Robert Peacock, make their home in McKinney, Texas. For more, visit denisegee.com.

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