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August 08, 2007

How to Plan a Southern Funeral

How to Plan a Southern Funeral

By Elaine Viets

I grew up in St. Louis, which is the southern-most northern city, or the northern-most southern city. Either way, there’s a keen interest in the southern way of death. We expect high drama for the last rites.

My grandmother, who spent her childhood summers in Tennessee, was a little more southern than the rest of us. She liked to take me for long walks in graveyards. Mom was afraid this would warp me, but the damage was already done. I grew up about as morbid as my grandmother.

A little over three months ago, I woke up out of a coma and found my husband had been planning my funeral.

"What did you plan?" I asked.

"I can’t remember," he said, vaguely.

"Did you remember the bagpipes?"

"Damn," he said. "I knew I forgot something."

This was my big fear – my husband and friends were too tasteful to give me a real southern funeral. Let me write down some elements:

The music: Bagpipes. Not required for a southern funeral, but there’s something wonderfully eerie about that music skirling around the tombstones. Makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck, which is a proper reaction for a traditional southern funeral.

The body: I’m not anxious to contribute this for a few decades. But when it happens, keep that coffin lid open. Southerners get suspicious if you close it. We suspect foul play.

I’d appreciate being buried in something gaudy that will cause lots of talk.

The coffin: Shockingly tacky. There’s a coffin that has "Return to Sender" like the Elvis song. Please avoid the Monet "Waterlilies" coffin. I’ve seen that poster in too many doctor’s offices, and Florida is awfully soggy. Ditto for coffins with flames all over them. I don’t want anyone to think it’s a preview of my final destination.

I promise to haunt the first person who says I look like I’m asleep. I look dead, dammit.

The eulogy: I read the comments you wrote for TLC when I was sick. I was touched. But even Mother Teresa didn’t get that kind of a send off. As an ex-reporter, I’d like a little truth along with the praise. It’s OK to say you thought I was a panel hog, or monopolized the conversation.

The first person who says, "I’m not going to say anything that will make you cry, because Elaine loved jokes. She wouldn’t want us to cry" is outta the will, pal. When I’m dead, excessive weeping, hair tearing, garment rending and teeth gnashing is acceptable. I won’t be back, except to haunt the people who said I looked like I was asleep.

The graveside ceremony: I hereby reserve a thousand bucks for the first person who throws himself/herself on my coffin and wails that he/she can’t live without me. I realize that many of my friends have had back and/or knee surgery, so this could be risky. If you want to sit on the edge of the grave and lower yourself in gradually, like a swimmer in a pool on a cold morning, fine with me. Just make sure you’re  yelling how you can’t live without me.

The funeral scandal: No southern funeral is complete without a scandal. There’s another thousand bucks to the first young man who claims to be my love child from Woodstock, and the first person to contest the will on the grounds that I was a crazy old bat. There is no love child, as DNA will prove, and this blog is proof my elevator is not going all the way to the top. But I appreciate the effort on my behalf.

Flowers: The bigger the better. Please send tasteless displays, like a mob funeral. In lieu of flowers, you can also make a donation to Mother Hubbard’s Home for Retired Chippendales.

Pall bearers: Six Chippendales. The less they wear, the more they get paid. If they want to dance for tips down the church aisle, fine with me.

The sermon: None of this Father Cool from the First Church of God Is an OK Guy. I want a fire and brimstone preacher, who scares the heck out of the mourners and makes them all feel they’re next.

Duration of the visitation: At least three days, so the mourners are happy to finally shovel me under.

Funeral-baked meats: No stale sandwiches and sheet cake in the church basement. Let’s have a real sendoff with scandalous amounts of catered food and liquor.

Anyone too drunk to drive home gets a free cab. I don’t want any company.


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Elaine, although we have never met, I'd be happy to wail that I can't live without you. And not just for the money. I'd truly miss your blogs. This one, I think, should be read aloud, at your funeral, before the wailing begins.

Along with the obligatory meats, there's another tradition I'd like to mention: the post-service, help yourself to a souvenir of the deceased tradition. Everybody who attends the after party gets to take home a doily or a cake plate or something that "Aunt Vivian promised me I could have when she goes." My mom has already promised away so many possessions, she's taken to writing the intended's name on the back of the item.

My dad is more practical. He swears that, at the bottom of her obituary, he's going to have printed: Memorial Service followed by Garage Sale. Everything Must Go.


Instead of the throwing myself into the grave thing(would ruin the lines of my suit), would it be okay if I looked down, dramatically took off my sunglasses, and said just loud enough to be heard, "Roswell. Marilyn. Jack. Bobby. Elaine knew the truth. That's why They had to shut her up...."

Now that sounds like a party! But what about momentos? When my grandfather died, the 90+ year old man who had cut his hair since he was 10 came to the viewing and handed out combs with the address of the barbershop on them to all the mourners. It is hard to beat taking home a nice souvenir from a funeral.

Maybe you could sign a few books in advance and have someone hawking them - proceeds to pay for the Chippendales?

So funny, Elaine. I'm making notes for my own funeral requests. Totally love the Chippendales idea, it not only entertains, but helps out the friends and family with bad backs. I'm totally doing that.

I'm Irish - when my Dad died a couple of years ago, we did have the church basement lunch, with food prepared by the "church ladies." But my brother brought the big cooler of beer.

Here's to hoping it's many many years before any of your requests be put into practice.

Elaine, baby, I'd promise to give you exactly this funeral if I didn't expect you to outlive us all. Nilarious!

Maybe it's the Irish in me, but you didn't mention an uncle with a pint of whisky in his pocket. I had my first sip at a funeral.--I think I was eleven!

I'm laughing so hard, my sides hurt. That post's what I call Richard Pryor funny, and there's no bigger compliment in my lexicon.

I'll print the instructions out, Elaine, and stick them in my desk drawer as a backup copy--way in the back, becuase I'm hoping it'll be years before we have to use them.

Elaine. I'll be the one coming with a large hatpin to stick in you, just to make sure you're really dead in that coffin. Yes, I've seen CHARADE one too many times, but if I can't do it to you, Sister, who can I do it to?

If I go first, you've got to be first in the Open Mike part of the service, which in L.A. replaces the Fire & Brimstone Preacher. Everyone gets up as the Spirit moves them to speak about the Dead Person (or to plug their next gig). This will be fitting, as most of our in-person moments together over the years have been me wildly applauding as you approach a podium to give a thank-you speech for having won yet another award. I leave your keynote speech--uh, remarks, I mean--to you, but do tell mourners it's all right to applaud afterwards.

Ramona, I want to come to the Everything Must Go garage sale.

Harley, I'll save you the trouble. I'll just tell my mom to put your name on the back of one of her kajillion knick-knacks. How about a souvenir cedar box from Six Flags over..your choice. We hit them all.

Very funny, Elaine! It's amazing how many of your southern funeral traditions are similar to Pittsburgh funeral traditions. The Chippendales wouldn't work up here, though, at least in the winter.

My husband wants a tailgate party in the parking lot of the funeral home when he goes.

I'm a bagpipes girl myself...written instructions to that effect, even if they have to scour the earth for the last knobbly-kneed piper. No recorded skirling, please! Other than that, I want to go the same way my dad did, in a tasteful green marble urn surrounded by really good pictures of me :o)
Chuck and I are sharing a plot (easy for those whose little caskets look more like oversized jewelry boxes) down the hill from my dad, smack in the middle of a bunch of my brother-in-laws relatives, fun people all :o)
Flowers are fine, but no roses.Please. Maybe daisies? And a sit-down dinner for the mourners, after which a collection box will be discreetly passed...for those 'memorial' checks my family always has handy.
Can you tell? I'm from the Midwest, firmly in the middle of the low-key funeral belt...I don't think we've had anyone to my knowledge throw themselves on anything faintly resembling a coffin, although several have been know to straighten ties, hairpieces, etc and then say "There, that's better." Dead serious.
For all the formality, though,I would like nothing better than a Second Line from the cemetery...How about "When The Saints" on bagpipes?
Great post, Elaine!

Can't add much other than to say last week while in San Francisco I was walking through Chinatown when a New Orleans style funeral procession went down the street complete with jazz band.
I'm still puzzling over that one.

Ramona, I love the idea of the Everything Must Go Sale after the funeral.
Nancy, I think it was my drunken uncle who first threw himself into the grave.
William, starting a conspiracy over my grave would be a fine thing.
Just reading this has me feeling more cheerful.
Elaine Viets

I believe my Aunt Therese was screaming, at my father's graveside, "not THAT one! don't play THAT one!" as they started playing the old Slovak hymn, "Now We Are Lowering Him Into The Grave" . . . Man, everyone's a critic.

Elaine, you've got me laughing out loud. What a send-off!

If I had my druthers, I'd have the gig that was thrown for the sister of one of my former students. Quiet service, then an all-day pot-luck at the house with folks making music wherever they happened to run into each other and sit down with their guitars, banjos, fiddles, etc. Lots of food, drink, laughter, and tears.

On the other hand, I have to say that nothing has moved me more (discounting my parents' funerals) than the full military send-off I attended for my uncle at Arlington. Those folks really know how to pull out all the stops. Viewing at the funeral home (yes, with open casket and medals gleaming), service at the chapel, casket on the caisson, riderless horse with boots reversed, 21-gun salute, lone bugler playing taps, the whole nine yards. I was a complete wreck, but in the best possible way.

Oh, hell, now I'm tearing up. I'm going to read Elaine's post again!

Can I have that great beige trench coat you wore to the Edgars a couple years ago? Just write it into the codicil. Oh, and don't forget to leave me your hairdresser's number.

PJ, the beige trenchcoat is yours. Wear it in good health.
My hair stylist is Mario and his phone number is -- well, email me off list. I wouldn't want to post it on the Net and get him crank calls. Besides my husband, he's the other important man in my life.

I lived most of my life in the south and I've attended quite a few funeral/pig-pickins. I must say it does my heart good to read that Elaine has decided to opt for a modest southern send-off - nothing too flashy. We Southerners hate it when people show off. So I tip my John Deere hat to you m'lady, and I promise to wash the truck before I show up on that so important day.

Lee, isn't washing the truck showing off? A good working pickup earns that dirt. Is the cap John Deere red or green? I do know the difference.

Something is wrong, here.

'Return To Sender' is a fair idea, but for you, nothing will do but that we go the extra mile. No, don't be modest - you want the 'Praying Hands Of Elvis' crate - maybe even with the thumbs, index, ring and pinky fingers painted out. Love those white leather cuffs!

Yeah, everyone will help make sure you get your piper. But how could one piper be enough? An event of this magnitude calls for The Knob Knoster Polka Band - 'cuz they play Southern German

And mourners will not be merely loaded - they will be piled high!

Elaine, I was laughing so hard I had 3 people show up in my office to ask what was so funny. Started the day out great!

Tom, the Knob Knoster Polka Band is ok, but we should get someone more nationaly knows for Elaine. Jimmy Sturr or Vlasta the Polka Queen would be the way to go. We could see in they know how to play a bagpipe, too. If they can squeeze an accordion, surely they could squeeze a bagpipe.

Growing up near St. Louis, and Lutheran, we didn’t have the wailin’ and hair rippin’ and teeth gnashin’ Southern funerals seem to have. We were very quiet, staid, and as I look back at it, BORING!!! That said, when my grandmother died at the age of 96 in 1993, all 5 of her grandsons, 3 of her grandsons-in-law and 2 of her sons brought coolers of beer with them to the funeral home. At any given moment during the evening there wasn’t a man to be seen. They were all out by the trash dumpster, in the enclosure that hid it from the public. When the preacher showed up, I ran out to make sure at least her sons were inside to greet him. After that we couldn’t find him either…yep, he was out with the rest of the men, having a nice cool one. Two trips to the liquor store to refill the coolers occurred. After the viewing we went to a small restaurant. There were approximately 60 of us in a meeting room. The first thing we ordered was 10 pitchers of beer. We were relaxed (gee, ya think?) and laughing. She smiled and said, “What is this…an Italian Wedding?” My aunt, an authentic Italian, said, “No, it’s a German funeral.” The owner of the funeral home (my brother & I grew up with her) has since put a padlock on the dumpster enclosure so that tradition was stopped immediately! But my family is still talked about in reverent terms at church and with the funeral home’s staff.

Love it, Elaine. But you forgot to request that weird stranger that shows up, all in black, (a veil if it's a woman), wailing and gnashing and fainting (and somehow landing on someone, even when everyone thought she was standing of by herself) and then after she finally works up to view the coffin, stops sobbing, says, "Oh, dear, wrong room," and hurries out. It's just really not a southern funeral without at least one of those.

Wow! I go away for 10 days and look at all I missed on TLC! Being a transplanted Southerner myself, I found your comments to be hilarious, Elaine. I commend to everyone's reading a funny book, "Being Dead is No Excuse: The Official Southern Ladies' Guide to Hosting the Perfect Funeral" by Gayden Metcalfe (she's from Greenville, Mississippi). The book even contains a great list of funeral foods all of which I believe either contain jello or condensed soup...

I wish I'd had this a couple of weeks ago when planning my husband's memorial service. There are some elements I know he'd have appreciated. This is the man who repeatedly told callers his brother was "out to sea" after having sprinkled his brother's ashes in the ocean.

Vlasta the Polka Queen -- I forgot about her. There's that wonderful polka song, "In heaven there is no beer. That's why we drink it here." I taught it to my publisher's delightful PR person, and she did an authentic hula in the bar at Bouchercon.

I laughed myself sick over this! My husband's family is Italian and Irish. I was in for the shock of my little English/Scandanavian life at the first funeral I attended for his side of the family! But, Elaine, I think even they could take a page from your manual!

Here I thought funerals were depressing and have been avoiding them all these years . . . shows what I don't know. I want to see someone hula to "In heaven there is no beer" -- on the cruise they only taught "Lovely Hula Hands" and "Hukilau."
Perhaps we could add some of these elements to book signings? I heard at the St. Louis event that you are working on a new book, Elaine? and GLW&CDR you'll be attending in person on that tour -- so how about a bagpiper polka and hula brigade? My mom always said she wanted the company and parties and flowers while she was around to enjoy them, not afterward.

My neighbor is a distant cousin and they go to the family reunion in Wisconsin all of the time. She taught me the "In heaven.." song years ago. On hot summer nights, we sit in the back yard, singing that song, while enjoying a few cold ones. Drives our husbands crazy.

I'm buying a ticket to this funeral! Not only is this post great, Elaine, but you've given me a whole new perspective on death. It's time to party.

Great post Elaine.
Having had years of funeral training, hen I planned my mom and mother-in-law funerals, I went did it in their styles. Mom who was a notoriously tight with a buck had potted Hydrangas that were rented.........sure disappointed the church ladies when they were picked up. They were blue to match her silver blue casket---the color of her first car. After we had shrimp, champaign and strawberries-----French 75's optional. My mother-in-law traveled the world many times so a big balloon sendoff was fitting. Since she was a lousey cook, all the food was catered. My daughter's eulogy ended with what Billie taught her.....you didn't have to know how to cook to get a man and you can never wear too many sequins. Both days there were high spirits.
For me...make sure I am gone…you know how I feel about that Victorian death thing
Party at home with lobster/Southern Comfort/meatballs/potato chips/Hershey bars and all kinds of berries and appropriate Ben and Jerry’s ice cream……
We’ll meet again and I’ll see you again………by Johnny Cash… some Edith Piaf, Patsy Cline and Carly Simon

Dear Hubby wants the Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want" played at his funeral.

Elaine, you should have "Its Raining Men" played as the Chippendales walk you in.

Elaine, I loved this post. I'm from Fulton, just a bit down the road from St. Louis and I know exactly what you're saying.

I told my kids I want the whole fire and brimstone treatment. A full black choir singing the old hymns and lots of 'praise the lords' and 'amens' from the gathered mourners. If someone feels the spirit and needs to speak in tongues and collapse in the aisles, that's even better.

Of course, a piper at the cemetary playing Amazing Grace and Danny Boy. Then, tons of food and booze at the house after the service.

I love a good southern funeral.

Pam, has your husband been watching "The Big Chill"? :)

Loved this column. I literally laughed out loud when it came to the Chippendales. If I was going to be buried (I want to be cremated), I would SO do that. That is so perfect to me.

I, too, hate the statement that the person looks as if they are sleeping. Duh, when I'm asleep, I'm usually curled up on my side, not with both my hands crossed on my chest.

Elaine said: "William, starting a conspiracy over my grave would be a fine thing."

Especially if the rumor started you had dropped hints here and there in every one of the 'Dead End' series....you'd NEVER be out of print...:)

Of, course, he saw "The Big Chill". He is not very imaginative. ;-)

"It's Raining Men" -- now there's a hymn for you, with halleluias, too. We need to have a party.

I love you Elaine! You can always make me laugh first thing in the morning when nothing else seems to register.

Okay, I gotta say that the most interesting funeral/memorial service that I ever attended was for the son of an artist friend.

During the father's eulogy (?) he explained how, just out of coincedence, he and his son had been discussing death and what they wanted in a funeral.

The son? Only praise songs, no funeral durges. Lots of laughter, and preferably no tears.

First laugh was the father telling us of his son's first day at college...and the son carrying a 6foot stuffed fish around. Why? Cause other students will wonder, and thus will talk to him. Majority of the kids remembered this as how they met him.

Then, the father decided we were too quiet so he opened up the suitcase that he had brought with him. Took out and put on a bright lemon-yellow tux jacket. Then out came his son's Dr. Seuss hat (and was also put on). After determining that his son would not be happy yet, he pulled out a super-soaker and started hosing us down...in church!

Ultimately, it was probably just what his son wanted.


Sounds like a great kid. And a great father who would do that for his son.

About those Chippendales, I'm reminded of a story of an unmarried woman who asked that her pallbearers be women friends because, "If the men wouldn't take me out while I was alive, I don't want them taking me out when I'm dead."

Why am I now humming John Denver's "Forest Lawn" in my head . . .


We have a Forest Lawn east in Fort Lauderdale, Kerry. Nice place to visit, but . . .

Oh god, I loved this post! Hysterical! :-D The comments are a must read, too.

I have a friend who taught and coordinated the local science fiction club into a hula troop. They had a function suite at the World Science Fiction Convention in Boston 2004, and not only did a sweet young leilani knock them dead with a hula to Lord of the Rings "May it Be", we also had a spacesuited astronaut dancing (in a silver tinsel skirt) to "Little Grass Shack". Now Carol, writer and dancer extraordinaire, knocks people's socks of with her hula to "Dirty Water" in Red Sox regalia, complete with baseball bat.

So, Elaine: this blog post looks like it belongs in a book somewhere. :-D

Cheers chums,

This just gets worse. Elaine, what *have* you set loose upon an unsuspecting world?

Example; being equal parts Kraut and Thistlehead, I'm now troubled with visions of Schwabian Schuhplaettler dancers (the lederhosen guys who dance while they slap their shoe soles and knees AND yodel) performing at a Florida authorial planting, with bagpipe accompaniment. While yodeling. And shoe-slapping.

A great and holy howling it would be. Just add beer and polka to make a party even partier.

How'm I gonna get this outta my head? I left the screwdrivers at home!


I haven't laughed that hard in a long time. That was so hysterical. In fact, I'm still laughing right now. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Tom, your image of yodeling bagpipers makes my eyes cross. There's no way to get it out of my head now.

Funny blog Elaine. I've attended my share of great Southern, Catholic-Cajun funerals. You know where half the relatives haven't spoken to one another for years wntil the funeral because that's the way Tont Na Na would have wanted if for HER funeral. And the drama. You can't beat Cajuns with the weeping, showing up drunk and knocking over flowers, begging for public forgiveness and leaping on the casket. Cajuns are very superstisous (sp.) and plan their funerals in great detail. No one should wear colors the deceased did not like. Only their favorite kinds of gumbo or jambalaya can be served. And heaven help the family if they run out of booze. The older men usually stay drunk for three or four days. My greataunt, Lucky, did not understand why the local school band couldn't play Hail To the Chief at her funeral. Some of these traditions have toned down a bit. But some requests are still outlandish. For instance my brother wants us to sing Strawberry Fields at his funeral. And my mother wants Glen Campbell to play the bagpipes. To each his own.

Glen Campbell plays the bagpipes? This is news to me.


Great blog! I think I may steal the Chippendale idea for my own funeral!
Why not go out in style?! :)

Never been to a southern funeral -- no, no wait. I'm lying. A funeral for a transplanted northerner living down here over 50 years ... does that count? I guess you could call it a mixed funeral service.

Floral arrangements: unfortunately I could not get to the viewing for a friend's father. But I understand the tractor floral arrangement was something to see.

Is it poor etiquette down here to show your tattoos during church service? Bec at first I wasn't sure about that. Long sleeves, no sleeves for church? Or is it only okay for the funeral parlor?

My late cousin's wristwatch alarm went off during a viewing. Room cleared for that one.

I was very confused and felt awkward at the first (sadly first of too many for me) memorial service I attended here. People just stood up and started talking about life events, parties they'd attended together, etc. I was more familiar with the more rigid, traditional mass -- I didn't know you were allowed to spontaneously stand and speak at memorials, I just thought it was another form of a mass.

Scandal and/or drama. No funeral is complete without. Not ready to repeat some of the more colorful ones -- save it for my viewing.

I know this is corny, but anyone remember Bill Cosby's viewing routine? Where he wants a tape playing in the coffin as you walk up to it saying, 'don't I look like myself?'



You have been chose as the Highlighted Blog of the Week on my blog for your How to Plan a Southern Funeral (scroll down, located on the right column.) I know I already commented, but I'm still chuckling. As I spent most of last night in the stupid ER, it helped to pass the time as I thought about your blog.


Yikes, Candace! Are you OK? Stay out of those ERs.
Elaine Viets

Y'all find this funny? It's just full of fine planning. Excellent thinking, Elaine, well done!

When we planted my mother, she had a carton of cigarettes, a fifth of Scotch and a pound of salt at her red-patent heels shod feet. All per her (many) requests. She was not about to be denied in death.

We put the word out everybody had to wear red to the viewing and they did--they all knew it was her favorite color in clothes.

Mary Lynn, I think I would have liked your mother.


I grew up in Tennessee, so I KNOW exactly what you mean. Didn't matter how someone died, you always had an open casket and everyone ALWAYS said they looked like they were sleeping and most did not.

Can I claim to be your lovechild, though the age may not work since I'm not young enough.

Great post.

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