Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Booknote: Being Dead Is No Excuse

Gayden Metcalfe and Charlotte Hays,  Being Dead Is No Excuse: the Official Southern Ladies Guide to Hosting the Perfect Funeral. New York: Miramax Books, 2005. ISBN: 9781401359348.

Genre: Nonfiction
Subgenre: regional, etiquette and manners, funerary customs,  food, Southern  U.S., humor (well, there is some humor.)
Format: Hardcover.
Source: My local public library.

This book may sound morbid on the surface, but this guide to U.S. southern manners and behavior for funerals, using Greenville, Mississippi as model, has amusing moments and humor. Food is a big part of southern funerals, so the book also includes some authentic southern recipes. Funerals in the Delta are not just funerals; they are full-blown social events. As the authors write,

"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" (28). 

The book strives to settle some deep questions, such as who does better food for funerals. Is it the Episcopalian ladies or the Methodist ladies? This is discussed in the second chapter of the book.  On the one hand, Methodists seem to have the upper hand in covered dish casseroles, and "historically, Methodists are better behaved than Episcopalians" (33). On the other hand, Episcopalians do drink and do so more openly. Yet, if you are not too pretentious, given that being pretentious is apparently a requirement of a southern funeral, then Methodist cooking may be for you. Heck, "when polled anonymously, many Episcopalians admit to a secret preference for the eclectic Methodist goo" (35). I do think the use of the word "goo" may reveal the authors' biases a bit.

Chapter 3 discusses the delicate art and taste of having a good obituary, an obituary that tastefully focuses on your positives. However, you do have to do it right:

"There is a difference between touching up a few details and an extreme make-over. In an obituary, you must strive to make the deceased look their best-- but not look like somebody else. After all, this is a moment for which they've been waiting all their lives. Selectivity is the key to success in this delicate undertaking" (68). 

This can include what can, politely at best, be called a white lie or two. Are you a lady who did not finish college because going to parties and dating boys and taking hard classes were a problem? You made a choice, and the choice was dropping out of college for boys and parties? Not a problem. You can go to college and graduate posthumously. That's Southern right there just as long as you have the right obituary writer.

In the end, the book is quite a look at aristocratic southern culture via its funerary rituals. Well, aristocratic or pretending to maintain that image. There a lot of rituals and details in a good southern funeral. At times, I found amusing some of the rituals and details, but there are also things that struck me as a bit ridiculous. Chalk it up to them being southern I suppose (versus me not being southern, i.e. to them I suppose I would not "get it.").

The book overall was a good read. It does have a lot of recipes included, which makes sense since food is such a big part of the funerals. A lot of the recipes are what I would describe as very "old school," but this is about tradition after all. I am just saying you won't see these recipes on cooking television unless it's some show with some modern chef coming to yell at them for serving Civil War era food in the 21st century. The book was entertaining, but it was also a bit stuffy at times. In the end, I liked it, but it was not a big deal.

I am giving it 3 out of 5 stars.

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Here are a few more notes of things I wanted to remember or found amusing in the book:

In the South,  good note writing skills and manners are crucial. You do not want to be the woman that others say "I bet her mother wasn't a Southern girl" (75). It is a Southern mother's duty to make sure her children (and we assume here this means her girls) can write good notes. So, how does a note from a Southern girl work?

"A note from a Southern girl never has a fill-in-the-blank feel. There is nothing generic about it. A Southern girl has to stop herself from gushing more than Old Faithful. If she is writing a thank-you note for a toaster, she doesn't just say thank you. She tells you about every little ol' thing she's ever toasted in it or is likely to toast in it. In a sympathy note, she doesn't say that Uncle Willie who has been lost will now be missed-- she recalls the cute bow ties Uncle Willie always wore. She does not recall that he also had a cute mistress named Lorene" (75). 

The book speaks further on the importance of stationery. Monograms on stationery do need to be really engraved so they pass the "finger test." An exception could be made, but otherwise, do not go cheap:

"Of course, we invented shabby genteel down here, and we really don't mind if a family scrimps because of actual economic hardship. We are not pleased, however, when somebody who made a good crop last year resorts to that cheesy, pre-printed stationery supplied by the funeral home. A death is the time for the best stationery  you can afford" (76). 

However, there may be moments to be glad you live in a small town. A sudden death can be a reminder of this:

"People in small towns instinctively want to help each other through a crisis. In good times, you're always complaining that everybody knows your business. In bad times, you know that the covered dishes are on the way. The smaller the town, the more food you will get" (143). 

As a private introvert, people all wanting to know my business in a small town has been a bit of an adjustment, balancing between being open and friendly and setting boundaries without appearing to be rude. Part of me wonders if I get to live here (Berea, KY) long enough if a covered dish or two might show up at my funeral (it is not as Southern as the Deep South here, but they still have enough Southern here at the edge of Appalachia).

And speaking of funeral food in the South, here is a not-so-secret secret:

"A cardinal rule of Southern funeral cooking: Fresh is not best" (145).

So expect casseroles, carbs, and things made with a base of mushroom soup. For many, that is definitely comfort food. For me, it's pizza and pasta, so feel free to bring plenty to my funeral.

Now, funeral food comes friends, family, so on. A lot of covered dishes come in. How do you, the recipient, keep track of who brought what and where to return the empty dish? There is a solution for that too: calling cards. No, they are not just for leaving in the little silver tray when you visit:

". . . attaching them to the funeral food offering. We write what we brought on the other side. This not because we insist upon being thanked but because we know we will be, and we want to make it as easy as possible for the family member in charge of notes to do so without being embarrassed by not having the foggiest what we brought" (210). 

And after the funeral, a restorative cocktail is a good thing. It might even help folks finish off that pineapple casserole. Right after a funeral you need two things to celebrate life, and those are friends and alcohol. I can certainly agree with that. Such time for friends and drinking after the funeral is "also a good time to reminisce about the person who has died and to celebrate life" (213). I know when mom passed away, we did some good drinking back home, and we did reminisce quite a bit while were at it. Because in the end, whether you have a big fancy funeral or a small simple ritual, it is about celebrating life, the life of the one dearly departed and the lives of those who remain.

* * * 

This book qualifies for the following 2015 Reading Challenges:

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