Funeral Buffet

The Miracle of a Southern Funeral: Rituals and Recipes for a Proper Goodbye

I am only 45 years old and live in New York—permanently, with no plans to move back home to Tennessee. But I'm putting it here in writing for my children to find on the internet someday that when I die, I'd like for my funeral to be in the South. I know it's possible to stage the weeping and rending of garments many miles from home. My dad died right before Christmas two years ago while visiting my sister in South Carolina, and we bought his body a Delta Air Lines plane ticket back to Memphis. It wasn't even that expensive. Ship me.

I don't mind asking my out-of-town friends (whoever is still alive on this earth) to travel, since there's no doubt in my mind that Southerners throw the best funerals. I know it the same way I know our weddings are superior to Northern nuptials—trust me; I've been to plenty of both—because we free wedding guests from the drudgery of a sit-down dinner and instead open the buffet and the dance floor simultaneously. Now, my funeral preference is a conclusion I've come to only in the past few years because, up until then, I had not attended many. Middle age brings with it more mourning experience. Grandparents die. Your friends' parents pass away. You show up (always show up) and begin to notice things that your own parents and grandparents already know intimately, like how the deceased's front door is likely wide open and that there's an overloaded buffet with a full bar in the living room.

Southern funerals are miracles when you think about it. They are actually just a step or two below a wedding—except that the reception lasts three or four days, you cry more, and you pull the whole thing together in less than a week. My mother, sister, and I bought plane tickets and a casket, hired a musician, met with a pastor, made decisions about flowers, and called or texted almost everyone we knew in the same amount of time it took me to button up one of the 89 wedding dresses I tried on in 2004. Part of the success of a funeral depends on your community showing up with coolers of drinks or a side of salmon (my friend Murff has a smoked-salmon guy in Memphis who is so fast and reasonably priced that she won't give you his name unless you've known her since kindergarten). But that's part of the miracle too. After my father's graveside service, we expected to welcome people back at the house but hadn't determined what was for lunch. A few neighbors brought platters of cold cuts, a cousin replated leftover side dishes, some sort of buttered cheese puffs materialized, and dozens of people ate all afternoon, loaves-and-fishes style. Which brings me to one of the most beautiful, important lessons I learned about Southern funerals: There's always a logistics operator behind the scenes.

Ours was Aunt Patti. She drove from Little Rock to my mother's house in Memphis, all while we were still in another state, to take down the Christmas tree, make all the beds, and clean the bathrooms. She then spent the days surrounding the service coordinating food deliveries, washing glasses and dessert plates, and—I'm not sure, but I think—running a taxi service for people who stayed too late drinking in my mom's living room. When my friend Hallie's dad died a few years ago, I remember walking into her mother's house and being overwhelmed at the thoughtful touches: boxes of tissues that were set discreetly on side tables in every room, ice buckets refilled, furniture spaced apart to make room for everyone. Then I overheard one of her mom's close friends whispering to another about restocking toilet paper in the bathrooms and directing a chicken nugget delivery to the kids' buffet. See? A logistics operator. Every funeral has one, and the best part is that they will volunteer. You, the family, don't even have to ask.

Another lesson I learned: As with weddings, there will be a guest book for people to sign at the church or funeral home. I always thought these were dumb. And I still believe this about weddings; I mean, you know who was invited, right? But anyone can—and will—show up at a Southern funeral, including your third-grade teacher (mine did), and you'll never remember them all. My dad used to meet a group of his high school buddies for breakfast at Chick-fil-A twice a week. Once, less than a year before he died, he had a dizzy spell, and a couple of the servers there (who, at that point, were very familiar with the old-man coffee club) stayed with my dad until my mother could pick him up. The day after his funeral, my mom was flipping through the guest book and saw two unfamiliar names signed in a loopy cursive. "His friends from Chick-fil-A!" and a smiley face were written next to them. If you think the funeral will be big—current circumstances won't last forever, we hope—have more than one guest book.

There are other things that Southerners excel at that make funerals better. We tell great stories and make good toasts, both handy skills in mourning a loved one. We make even cold cuts look special by transferring them to a silver platter. We don't think 8:30 a.m. is too early for a Bloody Mary. We know that when we tell a long-distance friend, "Oh, please don't make the trip," we're faking, and they know it and have already booked a flight.

I can't tell you what to do for the service. My father wanted a recording of the Mississippi soprano Leontyne Price singing the last movement of Verdi's Requiem at his funeral, but we lacked the equipment for it and had a violinist playing Mozart instead. What I can tell you—if you're around my age and lucky enough to be new to planning funerals—is that friends you haven't seen in 25 years will show up, it will be more comforting than you can possibly imagine, the food will never run out, and it will feel like a fantastic celebration of a person you loved. I hope someone remembers to fly me down for mine.

Classic Comfort Dishes

Yes, indeed, it takes a lot of work to make sure that the food never looks skimpy or runs out at a Southern funeral. Cookbook author and Southern Living Contributing Editor Sheri Castle shares some of her favorite recipes designed for versatility and ease

Bloody Mary Poached Shrimp

Many a Southern host understands that a big bowl of marinated shrimp can be the centerpiece of a buffet at any gathering. Guests appreciate seeing something they recognize and know they like, but they don't mind it having an unexpected twist, which is why I've made this recipe for years.

Credit: Victor Protasio; Food Styling: Chelsea Zimmer; Prop Styling: Christine Keely
Creamed-Corn Grits

We can rest assured that someone (several someones, most likely) will bring over buckets and boxes of fried chicken and platters of ham biscuits, but there's always a need for more sides. The addition of old-fashioned creamed sweet corn, what our moms and aunties might have called "fried corn," to a pot of comforting grits ensures that this recipe will go with any meal, from brunch all the way through the dinner hour. The grits tolerate reheating multiple times, an asset whenever a cousin needs to replate a few leftover side dishes.

Credit: Victor Protasio; Food Styling: Chelsea Zimmer; Prop Styling: Christine Keely
BLT Pain Perdu Casserole 

To my way of thinking, a funeral spread has to include at least one casserole. Better yet, two: one for the visitation buffet table and another for the family to have at home. This version delivers the flavors of a BLT sandwich in the form of a savory bread pudding that can feed several people. Because this dish tastes best slightly warm instead of piping hot, it tolerates being assembled in one spot and perhaps baked and served in another. It holds its form for a few hours, and individual portions reheat well—traits appreciated by an ad hoc hospitality committee working behind the scenes.

Credit: Victor Protasio; Food Styling: Chelsea Zimmer; Prop Styling: Christine Keely
Warm Cheese Box Bites

This old-school favorite has made the rounds in family recipe collections and community cookbooks for decades. These bite-size morsels combine the comfort of warm cheese toast with the elegance of tiny cheese soufflés. When they are made ahead and stashed in the freezer, you can pull out as many as needed.

Credit: Victor Protasio; Food Styling: Chelsea Zimmer; Prop Styling: Christine Keely
Poached Salmon Fillets with Creamy Herbed Cucumber Sauce

Rather than the usual slab of salmon with cucumbers arranged on top to resemble fish scales, this version is more contemporary and inviting. Center-cut fillets make a reasonable, easy-to-serve portion, though it's not hard to break off smaller pieces. Both the salmon and sauce keep well for a few days, making this a flexible dish that can handle last-minute changes in meal schedules, especially when eating "loaves-and-fishes style."

Credit: Victor Protasio; Food Styling: Chelsea Zimmer; Prop Styling: Christine Keely