Meet us at the table as we discuss with author Elizabeth Passarella why southerners are the very best at throwing funerals. After all, it's our opportunity to do more than provide closure, we experience the grief together, with deviled eggs, tissues, and a chance to reflect on eternity. Elizabeth is a contributing editor for Southern Living, where she writes the funniest and most heart-felt columns!
A former editor at Real Simple and Vogue, she has spent more than 20 years writing about food, travel, home design, and parenting in outlets including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Parents, Martha Stewart Weddings, Coastal Living, Airbnb Magazine, and Apartment Therapy’s The Kitchn. She grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, and graduated with a degree in journalism from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Elizabeth lives in New York City with her husband and three children.
- We interviewed Elizabeth back in Season 3 about her book: "Good Apple: Tales of a Southern Evangelical in New York." Check out that episode here: https://apple.co/3J5ji0n
- On this episode, we referred to the Southern Living article that led us back to Elizabeth, check it out here: https://bit.ly/37cwOC1
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One of our favorite writers Shawn Dietrich once said the build up to a southern funeral is nothing short of theatrical. Coordinating such an elaborate event is like dreaming up the biggest party of your lifetime, and only having five days to plan it. Meet us at the table as we discuss with another southern author, Elizabeth Passarella. Why southerners take funerals very seriously. It's our opportunity to do more than provide closure. We experienced the grief together with deviled eggs, tissues, and a chance to reflect on eternity.
I'm Lainie and I'm Laura Beth. And we are Steel Magnolias, the strength of steel with the grace of a magnolia. We're here to have uplifting conversations about life in the south, and we've got plenty of room at our table- So pull up a chair.
Hello, and welcome to the Steel Magnolias podcast. You might be thinking to yourself, I thought this podcast was uplifting conversations about life in the south. So why are they covering funerals? Well, the truth is that death is a part of our all of our lives. And while it is heavy and sad, it can be a time where you experience peace and comfort. And yes, we southerners love to lift each other's spirits, even at funerals. So we have invited and are so excited to be sitting down today with our friend Elizabeth Passarella. She is joining us for this conversation. And you may remember Elizabeth from our season three; episode two show that was titled A Southern evangelical in New York. That's because we discussed her book that was brand new at the time called Good Apple. Elizabeth is a native of Memphis, Tennessee, not very far from us. And a New York City resident, she is a contributing writer to Southern Living magazine. And the January and February issue included an article where Elizabeth wrote a story called The miracle of a Southern Funeral; rituals and recipes for a proper goodbye. So yay, Elizabeth is here.
Yay, thank you for having me. I'm so delighted to be a repeat guest that has never happened before. I'll just have to come back like every six months, I can be a regular.
I would love that. We've had this topic on our radar for a while. But your article just confirmed to me that this is truly something southerners do differently. So, thank you for that.
I had actually written this piece a lot earlier than it actually went into the magazine. My father, and I will talk about this, my father passed away in December 2019. And I wrote this piece not that long after that. And we, the magazine, you know, decided, I think really wisely to hold the story because we were just in the middle of a really hard time, it was the middle of the pandemic and there was just so much death, and so many people grieving so many things. And it did not feel the right time. Obviously, I I love to put a sense of humor in my writing and to kind of have a light hearted take on some things. And the tone wasn't right at first. Yeah. So the magazine decided to hold the story. And I was so happy that they did I think that was such the right move. But also it gave them a chance for Sherry Castle, who is a brilliant food editor to add all those recipes, which originally was not part of the story. So I was so happy that it became this really beautiful, amazing package with recipes in it too for people. So obviously food is such an enormous part of our funeral celebrations and processes that I was just happy that that's how it all came together in the end.
Yes, well, we'll talk about the food here in a bit. But you in the article you say the southerners throw the best funerals. What do you think gives you the confidence to say that?
I love how you think that I have confidence when I've done national magazines out there for everyone to read. I mean, I am 45 years old. I have been to many funerals but not a ton. I mean, I think that we're all kind of getting to that age where we have friends whose parents are passing away or but I do just feel like you know southerners two things. I think southerners know how to throw a party. Obviously a funeral is not a party in The most general sense, but I think that we know how to come together and celebrate, whether that is celebrating someone's life and grieving together as a community. I also just think that for me, what I always love about, you know, these kinds of gatherings is that southerners just have a real wave of hospitality. And I know that's something you too have talked about so much, but my mother always says, and she said this, even when we were planning my father's funeral, she said, No funerals are for the living. Funerals are not for the people who passed away funerals are for the living. And I just think that, yes, you know, you're grieving. And you are spending time with loved ones and thinking about the person that you have lost. But you're also sort of serving and grieving with and loving on a community too. And I think that's where the hospitality aspect comes in. But it's not just for the family, I think about so many people who tell me after the fact that they have either kind of, you know, been really blessed by a funeral, whether it's the religious service part of it, or kind of the, the gathering and the eating and the drinking, and the talking that happens around those those services, or, you know, their lives have been changed, or they've met somebody or reconnected with someone. I mean, I just think that southerners are very good at bringing communities together serving each other. It always happens around the table or with food or with drinks. And we do that really well. It's why I love Southern weddings. And I've been to I live in New York, I've lived in New York for more than half my life. Now. I prefer a southern wedding. I've been to several funerals up here. I prefer a southern funeral. I just think that we do celebration and hospitality in a way that is different, and really shows a lot of just love and service towards our families and our communities.
I have not been to a lot of Northern funerals, but from from my experience, I would say yes, I agree.
Yeah, yeah. Well, and you know, the religious service, the religious aspect of a funeral, whether that's, you know, you're having a graveside service, or you're having speakers in a church, or, you know, my father was Jewish, I mean, Jews sit Shiva in their own home for many days. So there's the religious aspect of it, I think, can be different no matter where you're coming from the north, the south different religious traditions. But yeah, I do, I think that the funerals I have been to up here, so often are in like a hall or a funeral home or something like that. I think southerners also, and I know, we'll get to this in a second where we kind of talk about the logistics around a funeral. But so often, they're your welcoming people into your home. And that takes a really special kind of, I guess, I don't know skill set, in a sense to sort of throw a party in your home basically, when you are grieving when you have lost someone, but also make it in a way that is not a burden to the family, but also is a way to welcome in all the people who want to be with you and close to you. It's just a really, it's just a really special thing. And you know, people used to die at home, that's the thing. I mean, now everybody, hospitals, but sort of so often they do but people used to die at home, and they used to lay in stay at home. And so I think that that is another thing that for me anyway, I have been so touched by and has really resonated with me or just stuck with me about Southern southern funerals I've experienced is just the aspect of turning your home into a place of, of mourning and grieving but joy and community and hospitality. And I think again, that is a skill set that southerners really do well.
That's so good. That's so good. So you know we love traditions not just here on the podcast I'm saying we we capital S southerners and so there are many traditions that are brought into the funeral time period and I when I say funeral, I really mean like the week leading up to even the ceremony itself. That's funny. I feel like I'm about to start mincing words because it's funeral but yet we oftentimes call it like Memorial or celebration of life, or home going. So even that itself first probably some phrases that you might hear a little bit more in the South in place of the word funeral. But Elizabeth, what are some traditions that you have seen or just witnessed yourself?
Oh, gosh, well, you know, there are I feel like any traditions around the actual kind of service or burial or things that to me feel different in the south and other places. I would say that, you know, like I was saying before about people gathering in the home. I when I I wrote the story, it really came out of my own father's funeral and death, which which we did not have a big service. My dad was Jewish. My mother, mother told him, he knew she told him when he was alive. I'm not burying you in a Jewish cemetery, you're going to be buried at Memorial Park where we're I want to be buried. So we did not have any sort of he was not religious. Anyway, he didn't really he wasn't a practicing Jew, but we did not have a religious ceremony for him. But we did have a really small just family and friends close friends graveside service. So we did not have a big service. But we did have that kind of gathering in our home for everybody. And all have our loved ones in our family who was in town. So, the story came out of that. But it also came out of one of my very closest dearest friends that I've known since I was in preschool, her father died about a year and a half before mine did. And when I went, I flew home, to flew back to Memphis to be at that funeral. And when I walked into her family’s, her mother's house, I just was so overwhelmed. Just so touched and just floored by the care that their friends and family were taking of them. And the things that always spring to mind the traditions to me that springs to mind when I think about sort of, you know, gathering in a southern home at the time of a death is there's a bar you know, there's there's usually some sort of bar set up. And there is a, you know, a buffet of food that kind of never runs out, I always think of it as like Loaves and Fishes, if it's just keep appearing, everyone just keeps eating, and it never runs out. This, you know, there were beautiful flower arrangements everywhere. And again, the family wasn't have to worry about that. I knew that they did sort of direct and flag and do certain things. But you know, just look, there were little boxes of tissues just discreetly placed around the house so that people would have them, there was a kid's table because obviously people are stopping by and their children are with them. So there was a Chick fil A nugget tray somewhere. And I think those are the traditions I think about is just the bringing of food, the take the little details that taking care of those little details, so that everyone who was involved feels cared for and loved. One of the traditions that I always bemoaned so much that I'm really glad my mother has decided to get rid of is when my grandparents died. And I don't know if you'll have this situation, but my grandparents are buried in Ripley, Mississippi, that's where they were from. And their graves have those little urns on them, like little built in molded flower holders, and you have to refill them every season with different flowers in the spring, you have to go change in the Christmas, you have to put poinsettias in them. And it was always this thing where my mom's like, Well, I gotta drive to Ripley, I’ve got to change the flowers on mother and daddy’s graves. And I thought, really? Because of course, people are going to talk if you didn’t change the flowers, like if you didn't do it, you are going to be ostracized, or your people are going to gossip about you that you didn't take the flowers, you must not love your dead loved ones. So I just always was like, oh, gosh. There for a while there was other family members who lived in Ripley, who would do it for her. So I'm glad that tradition seems to be gone. My father's grave does not have an urn on it, you guys, I don't have to go put poinsettias into that Christmas, I don't have to do that. You know, one of the new traditions, not tradition, this isn't a tradition. But one of the new things I feel like especially our parents generation is getting a little more comfortable with is the idea of being cremated. My mother does not want to be cremated. And she had, she feels very strongly about that. And that's fine. I'm happy to bury her. However, we're running out of room guys, cemeteries are packed. In fact, I believe my parents bought a plot that is one on top of the other, they're stacked. So I think when they bury my mother, they kind of dig up my father's grave, put her on top of him and which as you can imagine, brings up all kinds of dirty jokes in our family before he died. But I do think that more people, especially our generation, but even our peers, are becoming a little bit more comfortable with the idea of cremation for some reason, that just was a little bit scary or uncomfortable to people, older people that I know. But that's but people are becoming more comfortable with that and the kinds of traditions that come out of that in terms of scattering ashes or gathering with family or doing you know, special things with someone's remains or taking them on a trip or you know, that can become a really special tradition that you can even keep up years years later with your with your family or grandkids.
So, that’s interesting that you did bring up cremation though. Yeah, I hear it all over the place of people changing their mind of when they thought they wanted and
now as they age, it's changing. What was the statistic you found, Lainie?
I found an article that said it is becoming more popular in the south. But the five states with the lowest cremation rate are Mississippi, Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana and Tennessee.
Yeah, so is there something I'm missing in the Bible about like your body, your your souls gone guys. Your body is dust dust from dust we came and dust will we will return. I mean, that's that's I don't get it but I'm with you. I think there is something about Christians in the South. Yes, there there is something about not wanting yes to.
I guess in the scriptures, where it's talking about the the raising to life. We are getting a new body. That's right. I want the new one. Well, in Ezekial, the dry bones come alive. If dry bones can come alive, they can be re recreated from ashes. He knit the bones together the first time, He can do it again!
I found an article from the Chicago Tribune, and this quote was so interesting to me. It says, “Southerners have a literal understanding of Heaven and Hell. Death is not abstract. So it's something you think about, ministers talk about it, preach about it. Are you ready to meet the Lord?” I think that's something that's unique in southern funerals. And I want to jump into that.
Well, yeah, unfortunately, this this topic is a little fresh. I had a funeral just this past Saturday, that was a friend's dad that I attended. But I was so floored looking in the room. It was, I mean, I don't want to even say like 70% of the room was in ministry, somehow, whether they were a pastor of a church or a missionary, this guy had been planting churches all over the world. And, you know, you could probably draw a conclusion of a salvation type message isn't necessary, but still just being the sort of family that they were. Even the daughter when she shared her eulogy and reflections on her dad closed by saying, If you don't know the hope, that I have, as I grieve, I want to talk to you about that. So please come see me. I'm not the most articulate person, but I want to share that with you. And I was like, I mean, you know, if I hadn't crinkle faced cried at that point. I did then because I'm like, there's so others centered right now. And so I do feel like that's pretty heavy in in southern funerals, not just for like, if it was an unfortunate, like, young person that passed away, but even up through the white headed grandparent, you know, senior generation, I feel like you do hear a lot of Yeah, Invitational type of message as part of the ceremony.
You know, I had a friend, kind of a friend of a friend who lost her husband really sort of young. I mean, they were in their late 30s. And I just remember her her husband's funeral. I mean, there were a lot of people who came to know Jesus after that funeral. I mean, just the the picture of their life and their marriage, and the way that the service and I think that, you know, the service was online, also, they had sort of broadcast it or put it on YouTube or something. And so people could watch it after the fact. And I just think, yes, the, the witness of her life and their marriage, and the people that got up to speak about her husband and life and what it meant to them. It brought a lot of people to faith. And I think that is absolute. It's kind of like my mom says the funerals for the living and the legacy of some of these people that they can leave in terms of talking about their life and hearing their children or their grandchildren, speak about them. You know, my friend, Callie’s father's funeral, which is the other thing I was thinking about talking about earlier, that I thought this was so beautiful, the speakers at the start the service at the people who gave a eulogy. Her dad had three daughters, she had two sisters. So it's three girls. And instead of the girls speaking, which I think is so hard, I mean, I spoke at my grandmother's funeral, but I was young and a little bit naive. And so it wasn't too difficult for me. But I can't imagine speaking at my own dad's funeral, that would have been really hard for me. And so instead, the three girls, their three husbands spoke.They were funny. They were, you know, just so touching. And obviously they had known this fan really well that for a long time, they'd all been very first significant amount of time before he passed away. And I just thought for them to stand up and, and speak about their relationship and speak about this man who was not their own dad and just the impact he had on their lives. And so it really it really is impactful for the audience. And that's, you know, that's what I think that when funerals are at their best they can that can be just sort of a loving, just wonderful thing for the community and not just the family. That's right.
I have to mention when you said Mississippi, I immediately remembered this book and I was gonna bring it up anyway. There's a book by these two ladies from the Delta called, Being Dead is No Excuse. I don't know if you've heard of this. I mean, it's kind of older, but it's the official southern ladies guide to hosting the perfect funeral. Absolutely. And title is hilarious, but it has a lot of recipes. And it does kind of go towards that. As southerners, we have our particulars, and even if you're dead, then you should have had some things lined up. And you should have had some things in order and and thought through before it got to this point. But food is certainly a place of comfort. And, you know, like you were saying, just expect the food to come. It's gonna come from, you know, that neighbor around the corner that you didn't even know you know anything about the event. Somehow they found out and here comes a casserole. So expect comfort food, right? That's right.
But, the problem is, you know, I think it listen, our family, my father died in South Carolina. He was visiting me right before Christmas and was visiting my sister in Charleston. So he was not even at home, we had to fly his body home. And so my mother, now when she leaves town, she says, Well, my house is not funeral ready, but I guess it's okay, I'll clean when I get home. So she she talks about her house being funeral ready when she leaves to go out of town, because it was not funeral ready when she left with my dad to go, you know, pack up the gifts and go to my sister's house for Christmas. And so my aunt Patty, my mother's sister in law, she she is married to my mother's brother. They live in Little Rock, Patty and Max drove to Memphis, and Patti who is a go getter and a doer and just wonderful in times of crisis. She took my mother's Christmas tree down packed away the ornaments, made all the beds, wash the sheets made sure there's toilet paper, and all the bathrooms, just simple things like that. I feel like yes, the food comes. And yes, but you've got to have somebody we call it the logistics director, you have to have somebody who is going to remember who brought what do you could write thank you notes later, because that is also important. And you know, so you don't lose track of who brought what, and just direct people you know, that needs to go in the freezer that needs to go in the refrigerator in the garage, this we're going to put out now we need to wash more glasses, or we need to wash forks or whatever it is. So that is again, I always think about Southern funerals. It's almost like throwing a wedding except for you do it in two and a half, three days with prep. So it's pretty amazing that it all comes together. And that is where I just think the miracle of community is what is the only thing that you that you have to rely on. I mean, we in my family to not plan super well, again, we were out of town, we were trying to get his body home. And so when we got to Memphis, we were not super prepared, and I just remember coming home after his start the graveside service, and we kind of had a little, you know, meet and greet visitation thing at the funeral home. And then we came back to our house. And our neighbors just brought things and things just appeared. And it was beautifully laid out on silver trays. Of course, those are always close at hand and at the ready. So that's not hard to make things look beautiful, even if it's just cold cuts. But it really was like a Loaves and Fishes situation, people were coming and going and coming and going. And the food just never went out. And I didn't buy anything. And I think Patty was was washing dishes and setting fresh glasses and silverware out my cousins were doing it. My friends from Memphis showed up with sides of smoked salmon and all kinds of food. And so yes, I think that is just, that's just the beauty of these situations is the way that communities come around you and can make them beautiful, even if the family isn't really able to do that.
Mm hmm. That absolutely comes from your aunt Patty, having received that probably from somebody in our life, she was the recipient and knows, okay, I know now firsthand, what would be helpful. I'm just saying that not even knowing her but you know, when you have walked through it, you do know, these little particulars make a difference. And, you know, it helps.
Yeah, and I'm so grateful that now we have learned that you know, as the as the younger generation is we're coming up, you know, in the middle age, and we're going to be dealing with this more and more. Not that I didn't know it before. I certainly seen this behavior in my family my whole life, just the hospitality, the serving of people the putting things out to look nice, the keeping people's glasses filled all of that. I'm good at that. But just seeing how crucial and important it is in these times of breathing and being able to serve a family that is mourning. Now I know. And now my children have kind of seen that. So that's how it goes within families with traditions is you see it, and then you do it. So I'm just grateful to have watched these older women in my life, have done that for their friends and family and served our family in that way so that now I could.
So good. I have come across something that really made me laugh out loud out how to conduct yourself at Southern funerals. This was put together by that it's a southern thing if you've ever seen those little memes, two of them were just so great. I had to mention them here. Never ever bring healthy food to a funeral reception. The only kind of salads allowed at Southern funerals are potato, three bean, egg, macaroni and congealed with little pieces of fruit floating in it. Healthy foods are not comforting ever. Ever. Yeah, yeah, I mean, let's all you know, we admit there are food sensitivities and allergies. But there is a place that you know, those those can be added into the mix. But don't don't primarily bring a veggie tray.
My favorite thing that someone brought the my favorite thing that someone brought to our house with these sort of like, just really decadent, like a cheese. It was like a cheese biscuit but lighter, and kind of deep, sort of fried or maybe but I don't know, it was like a morsel of gooey bready. Cheese puppy thing. And it was so delicious. And then Sherry Cassell, who did the recipes that went along with that Southern Living recipe, and you can certainly still find them online. But she gave a recipe for something extremely similar, basically kind of the same thing, which was so delicious. And I just thought I probably 20 And I just thought, well, I've just consumed 8000 calories, and it's fine. But I will say one of the best tips I got entering into kind of the week of my dad's funeral and being home was my friend, Murph said she's like hydrate, you got to hydrate. Just remember to hydrate. And it's true because you're talking talking talking to people you're drinking, because that's always happening. And then you're crying. So you are just you're drinking, you're crying. You're talking it's kind of like it's your own wedding where you just forget to drink a glass of water. So I will say on the health side, eat all the potato salad. That's true. Also drink big tumblers of water.
That's true. Now I have a question because I haven't been to funerals up north. Do people typically pull over for a funeral procession? That might be hard to answer because of traffic in New York City. But no. Because they can't right now because they wouldn't want to.
Yeah, I think that probably people do not listen. There's not cemeteries. I mean, there's no cemeteries in Manhattan. Obviously, the cemeteries are out in kind of Queens and Brooklyn out in the borough's where there's more land and more space. Yes, I have seen people pull over and you certainly do see the lines of cars with their lights on. So yes, it does happen. It probably depends on traffic. Sometimes it's hard to pull over. Yeah, there's not it's a little bit more congested up here. But yes, you do.
Yeah. Okay. And another thing we need to mention is just music is a huge part, I would say of southern funerals and hear some
of this amazing gray. Yeah. And the old rugged cross or rest tile on that mat as well with my soul as well with my soul. How Great Thou Art. So I wouldn't you know, maybe it's not live music, maybe it's just a track they're playing. But you're gonna hear some old standards like that for sure, I would say.
And that live when people do sweet little personalizations and funerals that are very specific to the person who has passed away. In fact, just even if what I just said you hear often people will not say somebody died, they'll say they passed away. That's something I've heard a lot in the south. But anyhow, I've been to a couple of funerals where they just did some really sweet things. There was one I went to just a couple years ago where they had some of the pieces of embroidery that this woman had done an article in the paper about her embroidery. And so I didn't know her I was there because I knew some of the family but I felt like I got to know her just by seeing some of her handiwork. So that's that was really sweet. That's cool.
I like it when someone if it is an open casket, which I'm you know, I'm kind of not a fan of but if if there's something that that person was kind of known to where if they were a lover of bright pink.The same thing they had her and she a bright pink suit with pink flowers, because that was her favorite color.
Yeah. Now we're kind of getting into the movie Steel Magnolias and I do not want to cry and keep my eyes wide. But yeah, that's true. Elizabeth, Have you ever heard of the tradition of people putting something in the casket like an object to be buried? Have you ever heard of that?
Yeah, I mean, I definitely have I mean, we did not put anything I'm trying to think we did not put anything in my dad's casket although we did wrestle with what to what clothes to put them in. I think you know, that's it's because it doesn't matter again. I am very much about the body is the body and the soul is the soul. So I do not care, you can bury me naked. Doesn't matter. Cremate me, please. But I just, but we did not put anything in his casket. But yes, I definitely heard of people putting, you know, like, a fly fisherman having a fly tucked in with him or a, you know, something like that. So, I mean, what I think is so funny is I remember, one of my kids recently was talking something about the ancient Egyptians. And I was thinking about whenever I've been to those exhibits at museums, that ancient Egyptians, you know, they buried them with everything, because they would need them in the afterlife, they're going to need that gold, and they're going to need that jewelry and all of those things. And I just think, oh, no, no, no, like, do not put the rings get the jewelry guys before you put it in the casket! Like, take the wedding rings off, take the jewelry. So I guess you could bury somebody in like a favorite brooch or some sort of, but I would say keep that keep that and hold on to it. I mean, you know, be able to pass that down or remember that person by it or wear that wedding ring on a chain or something. I mean, I If y'all have not gathered my opinions yet about what what needs to go in that casket. Yeah. But yeah, I just so that really, I mean, is some sort of sentimental thing. But you know, again, I think you're doing that for you, you know, if it brings you comfort, if it brings you some sort of sense of closure, or it makes you feel like you you honored your loved one has passed away in some way. By doing that, by all means, you know, the all of these, all of these traditions or ceremonies or acts are really for you to to help you grieve to help you remember that person. It's not for them.
That's so good. I love it. I love your take on community I think it's spot on. And hospitality doesn't stop funeral week. So I think these are all important elements that it would almost be weird as southerners if it didn't overflow, even into sad parts, you can't just kind of switch those things off if it's truly in you and in your heart towards others. So, great points. I know you said you weren't confident in your opinion, but I love your take on it. And I wanted to just tell people to that pretty soon, maybe even just a year out. Elizabeth is working on a new book. So we'll be very excited and patiently waiting any more information that you're going to share in the coming year about that. And you'll continue to see her articles pop up in Southern Living from time to time. But Elizabeth, we just can't thank you enough for your time today. And just for sharing some of your thoughts and your personal story with us. I love talking to you all and I'll be back in like six months, right? Yeah, three great guest. Thank you so much for having
Yes. Well listeners if you are enjoying these episodes, I would encourage you to leave a review on whatever podcast app that you'd like to listen to even one sentence can help people find us and just share what you love about the show that helps people know what to expect when they hit play. So
Peace be with you, Elizabeth.
And also with y'all