BEING DEAD IS NO EXCUSE

The Official Southern Ladies Guide to Hosting the Perfect Funeral

By Gayden Metcalfe and Charlotte Hays

Miramax Books. 243 pp. $19.95

If you want a good laugh in this uptight, power-obsessed city, pick up a copy of Being Dead Is No Excuse. And if you are a Southerner, you will laugh until the tears come.

Granted, death is no laughing matter, but Southern funerals definitely can be, as Gayden Metcalfe and Charlotte Hays show. The irreverent pair hail from the Mississippi Delta, and even though I grew up in Tennessee I recognize every character in the book. (I have no way of knowing if the people mentioned are real or invented. I have never met Metcalfe, who still lives in Mississippi, but Hays is a Washington journalist whom I do know.) The subtitle -- "The Official Southern Ladies Guide to Hosting the Perfect Funeral" -- pretty well sums it up, yet there is no way to suggest the fun of this book without quoting just about every tongue-in-cheek sentence.

As an added bonus, each chapter concludes with wonderful, easy-to-follow Southern recipes, so you learn not only how to give a flawless funeral, but also how to prepare the foods that are necessary to this quintessential Southern experience.

"After the solemnity of the church service and finality of the grave, the people of the Mississippi Delta are just dying to get to the house of the bereaved for the reception. . . . Friends and family begin arriving with covered dishes, finger foods, and sweets as soon as the word is out that somebody has died."

Certain foods are essential for burying a self-respecting Deltan. "Chief among these is tomato aspic with homemade mayonnaise -- without which you practically can't get a death certificate." Others in the Top 10 list of funeral foods are fried chicken, stuffed eggs, Virginia's Butter Beans, Can't-Die-Without-It Caramel Cake, homemade rolls, banana nut bread, Aunt Hebe's Coconut Cake, Methodist Party Potatoes and tenderloin.

Where you are buried is also very important. "The old cemetery is one of the best addresses in Greenville. . . . Being buried anywhere else is a fate worse than death." Cremation is still a "new and dicey" proposition in the Delta. "The last time somebody was cremated, his ashes were sprinkled from a crop duster. We all ran for cover. We liked him fine, but we didn't want him all over our good clothes."

Appearance is important, too. Even in death, Southern women always want to look their best, and it was said that Bubba Boone, the local undertaker, could do a better job than any plastic surgeon.

The ladies' advice for those who want a tasteful send-off, with "great vestments" but no "tacky hymns" or "smells and bells," is to join St. James' Episcopal Church. "Southern Episcopalians wear their devoutness lightly. That's one reason they excel at funerals. . . . They are sensitive enough to know that simply being dead doesn't mean you no longer care about social status."

Nobody wants an ill-attended funeral, and St. James' turns out in full force for one of its own. However, for a really big funeral, membership in both St. James' and Alcoholics Anonymous is the ticket. "Episcopalians who have belonged to AA attract a standing-room-only crowd, without increasing the liquor bill for the reception."

There's a Protestant church caste system in almost every Southern town, and in Greenville, the authors say, the Episcopalians and Presbyterians generally thought themselves a cut above the Methodists, described by one lady as "frustrated Baptists who would like to be Episcopalians." "They'd like to whoop and holler," the authors comment, "but they are not deaf to the clarion call of social mobility." (Full disclosure: I was raised a Methodist, and in my hometown, evangelicals, now so courted in Washington, were beyond the pale.)

Metcalfe and Hays report that while there is no theological animosity between Episcopalians and Methodists, the culinary rivalry is cutthroat: "Episcopalians are snooty because they spurn cake mixes and canned goods, without which there would be no such thing as Methodist cuisine." But everybody has to look down on somebody, they observe, so for Methodists, there are the Baptists, who put "little bitty marshmallows" on their congealed salads.

The writers tackle all the key issues. If you die a Methodist, they ask, can the mourners enjoy the full range of consolations? Maybe not. "If you feel your family will be so devastated by your departure that they'll require the solace of strong drink," they advise, "join St. James'. Immediately."

The ladies insist that people do not "pass away." They die. One still writes condolence letters by hand. Paper napkins at the reception are verboten. As for music, "It is never a good idea to choose a hymn with a lot of high notes. . . . You can't go wrong with the old standards, like 'Oh, God, Our Help in Ages Past.' This will work well for almost anybody but the most out-and-out atheist." For obvious reasons, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" is a no-no. They warn against "On Eagle's Wings," whose popularity " has spread like kudzu." As for flowers: positively no carnations or gladioli.

In a chapter titled, "I Was So Embarrassed I Liketa Died," the authors remind us that, unlike the dead person, you will awaken and rise in the morning. Hence one of their most valuable bits of advice: You can have fun at a funeral, and especially at the reception, but "you don't want to have been so bad you wish you could switch places with the deceased." *

Selwa Roosevelt is a Washington journalist and former White House chief of protocol.