Sharon Cemetery in Middleburg, Va.

Sharon Cemetery in Middleburg, Va.


BEING DEAD IS NO EXCUSE by Gayden Metcalfe and Charlotte Hays

Some years back, Charlotte Hays and Gayden Metcalf published a book entitled BEING DEAD IS NO EXCUSE. It is a delightful read, a very tongue in cheek discussion of Southern funeral customs.

When it comes to funeral customs Middleburgers take theirs seriously. As soon as the word goes out that Brother has passed away the phone calls begin with the questions “Where is the service and reception?” and “Who is making  the deviled eggs and crustless pimento cheese sandwiches?”

As Charlotte and Gayden (who are from the Mississippi Delta and know a great deal about Southern funeral customs) point out, most proper Southern brides receive a crystal deviled egg plate as a wedding gift so they will be prepared to attend their first funeral reception as a new Mrs. The plates (you know the ones with the hollow oval spaces to hold the eggs surrounding a center well) could be inherited from grandmother. Grandmother neglected to tell me what the heck goes in that center hole and I am still clueless.

In Middleburg, funereal receptions sometimes grow so large that a tent behind the church is needed to accommodate the crowd. There seems to be an endless supply of mourners composed of family, dear friends, casual friends or just people who once met the deceased in the check out line at the Safeway. When well-known horseman Paul Fout died in 2005 his body was placed in a pine coffin draped with his racing colors, which made the trip from Glenwood Park to Middleburg’s Sharon Cemetery on a carriage pulled by four horses driven by William Staples. His widow, Eve, expressed concern that the coffin be well secured on the carriage so that Paul did not experience an involuntary dismount on his final ride through town. All went well and the procession was quite moving.

Funereal fare varies, sometimes because of different religions involved. Charlotte Hays quotes Lucy Mattie Trigg, who says, “You can always tell when a Methodist dies — there are lots of casseroles”. Methodists are known to have the best food, but no alcohol. If it is good libations you seek you need to wait for an Episcopalian to die.

Many fine citizens of Middleburg (both native and not) were raised to consider the social event side of the funeral process as a way to pay respect to the deceased and family. This is especially true of my parents’ generation. My father-in-law died in Richmond a few months ago. By the time we went through the required ritual of visitation, funeral, reception and graveside service it was a 3-day process. Some Hollywood marriages do not last that long.

For some, all this formal ritual is just not their cup of tea. My friend, Linda Sandridge, has asked that she simply be cremated and her ashes spread beneath the sales rack in the dress department at Lord and Taylor. I am thinking we can slip in right before closing time wearing raincoats with large pockets and no one will notice. The good news about cremation is that there is no rush to schedule anything as the remains have no “sell by” date.

Having recently spent several months dealing with the deaths of close friends and relatives I have noticed that sometimes we become so mired in our own preferred rituals surrounding death and funerals that we become critical of those who prefer a different approach. When Brother’s widow decides to remember him privately in the presence of only those closest to her without all the usual pomp and circumstance it may be just the way she chooses to grieve. It does not need to mean that she decided that he does not deserve a high volume send off because she  is angry with him for  neglecting to mow the lawn before he died. Some families do not feel comfortable with a big reception, surrounded by lots of people in tears, or want to expend the funds to feed a multitude. It all comes down to personal preference.

Someone very close to me, when asked why he did not want a traditional funeral after he dies answered simply “Because funerals are much too sad and I do not want a bunch of people standing around being sad.” Amen, Brother.