Being_Dead_Is_No_Excuse_COVER_Metcalf_Hays_24JUN05Note the deviled eggs. They are, Martha LaValla declares, “almost de rigueur at most luncheons in the South.”

This is one of my favorite book titles. For those of you who are not familiar with it, this small cookbook by Gayden Metcalfe and Charlotte Hays—which includes pointers for hosting the perfect Southern funeral—embraces the Southern tradition of lavishly celebrating all occasions, not the least of which is a tasteful funeral. Ironically, the book includes many artery-clogging recipes—but that is beside the point. The title has endless extension possibilities. One my father might have liked is Being Dead Is No Excuse for Not Planning One’s Own Funeral.

My father died on February 22, 2013, in Jackson, Mississippi, his home for 60 years (in one of life’s many small coincidences, he died six hours before Dr. Pat’s beloved mother did; he, too, would have turned 94 in May). The story of his death began 27 years ago, when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Ever believing that he could control his life, he elected to have a prostatectomy because he thought it would cure him. That belief was compounded by a casual comment from his doctor at the time, who said that something else would kill him. Even though he enjoyed good health for at least 25 years after the surgery, my father was nonetheless piqued when the doctor’s comment turned out not to be true all these years later. The cancer metastasized to his bladder several years ago, and finally to his bones in November. He miraculously survived double pneumonia in January, but by then was so weak that he continued a steady decline until his death.

A well-read, educated, and traveled man whose nearly photographic recall of events made him a fascinating and prolific storyteller, my self-confident, gregarious father expressed only one fear that I remember. What he feared was the journey to death; he wasn’t afraid of the destination. The journey started in earnest several months ago; it wasn’t easy, but, blessedly, it went relatively quickly. He reached his destination with family by his side and with little suffering—a promise we made to him and, thanks to great medical and hospice teams, were able to keep.

When we went through his neatly entitled “Death” folder, it was no surprise to find his obituary as well as a personalized, pre-printed bulletin for the Requiem Eucharist he wanted, complete with chosen psalms and favorite hymns. All we had to do was add the date of death. He also included a mockup of his desired grave marker and a map of the Canton, Mississippi, cemetery with detailed instructions about where his urn should be placed in order to leave room for my mother.

He would have loved the visitation, the flowers, the music, the homily, the service (he was a proud descendant of Episcopal clergymen, after all), the luncheon afterwards (we used a caterer he particularly liked), and all the attention paid in the South to a life well lived. And why not? He was his own event planner.


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  • Abby March 23, 2013 at 10:16 pm

    Perfectly logical. We should all plan our finals, as those rites are referred to in the south. Plans limit the pain visited upon survivors and may help reduce conflict among surviving relatives.

  • California Girl March 23, 2013 at 3:34 pm

    I enjoyed your article particularly as it coincides with my experience with my father. The similarities are striking. Dad was 97 when he died although he had a heart attack and was gone. He’d had prostate cancer, diagnosed at 83, had a pretty severe surgery back then, it was 1993 & all remedies left the patient impotent. He survived another 14 years in good health. His doctor told him the same thing, “You’ll die of something else.” which turned out to be true. He thought about death for 30 years and was resigned to it. I don’t think he expected to live as long as he did but after he was in his nineties, he thought he’d give Bob Hope a run for his money & live to be 100. He left everything arranged, the burial plot, the casket, the requested ceremony with full military honors. He was buried in his USAF uniform, a retired Lt. Col from WWII. My brother and I had only to follow his directions. I did spend lavishly on a “wake” style party after the ceremony. That’s one thing he would not have approved. However, we had a surprising 60+ guests and I was so glad I could feed them. All in all, one should go out with a bang and, no matter the age, surrounded by love.

    My plans include a playlist of songs by Earth Wind & Fire, Stevie Wonder, Steely Dan & Bob Dylan.

  • Nora Gaskin March 23, 2013 at 2:27 pm

    I too love that book! Nice to be reminded of how we do it in the south, and to have recipes for excellent funeral food.

  • b.elliott March 23, 2013 at 12:24 pm

    I hope that my funeral is not around the corner, but I do think I will plan mine well ahead having read this piece and Pat’s comment. It isn’t micro-managing but relieving stress for loved ones.

  • patricia yarberry allen March 23, 2013 at 11:27 am

    Dear Martha,

    We two women who grew up in the South and claimed New York City as home for our adult life have never lost the cultural ties of our birth states. Mommie also left detailed instructions about her funeral. The flowers, the visitation (called in our part of the South as “the viewing”) and what she was to wear were all chosen in advance of her serious decline. This preparation in advance was such a gift to her children: we just carried out her wishes and were able to be a loving family since she didn’t ask us to make individual choices about what she might have wanted and perhaps disagree about those choices. I personally love the title of the book and understand it completely.

    Dr. Pat