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Just Plain Fun

Charles Riles: ‘Composure Keeper Extraordinaire’



Charles Riles, behind the shovel, and Gordon Cotton. (photo by Sam Andrews)

Charles Riles had invited Charlie Mitchell and me to lunch at Walnut Hills to talk about a book he was writing, “Through Open Gates.” I saw Rev. John Allen from Westminster Presbyterian Church enter the dining room, and I invited him to dine with us because “Riles is paying for it.” That was in 1989.

We were having our usual good time, banter back and forth, when Mitchell commented to Riles, who usually wore a diamond tie pin, “I’m glad I didn’t wear my diamond since you didn’t wear yours.”

I spoke up. “I don’t have one,” I said, and then thought a moment and added, “Oh, yes I do. I have Mother’s diamond ring.”

Mitchell turned toward me and said in amazement, “You mean you still have your mother’s diamond? Why, of course you do. She was buried from Glenwood.”

My friendship with Charles Riles goes back to when I had dark hair, and he was slim. He has had my funeral plans so long that I’ve outlived some of my pallbearers. I have my friend John McHan building my casket, and I don’t want to be embalmed. Charles has often said he didn’t want my business because he doesn’t like cheap funerals.

Riles has recently retired from the funeral business after more than half a century. During that time, he has never sent a get-well card because it wasn’t good for his business.

This photo of Charles Riles, left, and me appears on the back cover of “Just Passing Through,” a book of funeral stories he and I wrote that I called “A Mutual Understanding.” Riles is the dignified undertaker, I am the gravedigger. Sam Andrews took the photo. The book is available at the Old Court House Museum and at Lorelei Books.

He and I have always teased each other—or I think he was teasing. He has often accused me of taking an old newspaper article, putting the last paragraph at the beginning and calling it research.

I have chided him about his weight (really, I have always been concerned about his health). He told me a while back that he was watching his weight, and I replied, so was everyone else. He finally went to a doctor who told him he was not overweight. Of course, he went to the fattest doctor in town.

Ground Hog Day took on a whole new meaning when Charles, on a miserably wet day, slipped into a grave during a burial in Hollandale. The story got back to Vicksburg before he did, and I couldn’t wait to ask him if he saw his shadow.

He got some unusual requests, and two I remember. When a friend was going to be buried at Christ Episcopal Church, she requested that a pillow be placed behind her head so that when the casket was being carried down those steep steps, she didn’t want her body sliding and her head hiding the inside of the casket.

The other was a friend who wanted a bottle of good wine placed in her casket, which was done, but later, Charles told her family they forgot to include a corkscrew. They weren’t concerned. She was a good Episcopalian, and certainly, she would know how to get that cork out of the bottle.

His stories were endless, and two I especially recall. When a funeral was held in the Oak Ridge community many years ago, a goat that belonged to the family of the deceased climbed into the open hearse and ate the flowers.

The other was concerning the service in Vicksburg at Crawford Street Methodist Church. It was the last rites for a very, very large lady—so large that a special casket had to be made for her—and in the first words of the minister’s prayer, he thanked God for “opening wide the gates of heaven” at the death of this dear lady.

At a funeral I attended was an incident I will never, ever forget. It happened in the foyer at St. Paul Catholic Church. My friend Mrs. Lillian Smith was getting buried, and behind the casket stood three of her friends, ladies who were no longer young. As Father Eagan turned to place the pall over the casket, the lady in the middle, Miss Lillie Mae Brantley, dropped something—her underpants fell to the floor.

I was on the left, Charles on the right, and at first, he thought the lady had perhaps dropped a scarf. He bent to retrieve the object when he realized what had happened. He and I glanced at one another but dared not to make eye contact again. I turned my head just enough to see what the lady would do. She stepped out of her step-ins, put them in her purse and proceeded into the sanctuary.

An hour later, I was back at my desk and penned the following letter to Charles:

Dear Charles,

I just had to tell you how impressed I am with your conduct this morning at the funeral of Mrs. Lillian Smith St. Paul’s Church.

You deserve an A+ in funeralizing. Talk about dignity and conduct! It was your finest moment, Charles, when you came face to face with someone in the midst of a personal crisis.

For a fleeting moment, Charles, I thought that you were going to retrieve the dropped garment, being the gentleman that you are. But instead, you maintained your solemn dignity, looking neither to the left nor to the right, refusing to catch my eye with a glance!

No one enjoyed a joke any more than Miss Lillian, and I’m sure I saw her casket shake a bit with laughter.

I will be glad to testify that when it comes to a dignified service conducted under unusual and stressful circumstances, you’re number one, Charles!

Gordon Cotton

I wrote an account of the event and sent it to my friend, Charles Mitchell, who was in law school at the University of Mississippi. He wrote Riles the following letter, addressing him as “Composure Keeper Extraordinaire.” This is the letter:

It has come to my attention that you have been (or should be) nominated as funeral director of the century based not only on the exemplary record which you had prior to this week but also for your crowning achievement in the moments preceding a service Monday at Fisher North (known locally, I believe, as St. Paul’s).

I speak, of course, of the service at which a family member of the deceased decided at the last minute to follow that age-old tradition of participating in the Mass bare-assed. (It is, of course, from the age-old tradition that we have our modern word, embarrassed, which, of course, means to be in a state of forced humility.)

It goes without saying, of course, that many people live their whole lives without having a 72-year-old woman, with whom they have not previously been intimate, drop her drawers right before their eyes in a public place. And for those who have had this experience, fewer still can assert the experience did not catch them somewhat off guard, resulting in either a giggle, a gasp, a grin, a gaze or a mouth agape. But I have reliable reports from impeccable sources that your reaction, if any, was so muted as to uphold the highest traditions of the funeral industry. And it is, for that reason, I am today, as I have always been, proud and humbled to say that I know you.

My highest compliments and my continued wishes for your continued success. May others follow your example.

Your ardent admirer,
Charles D. Mitchell

Mitchell noted that he was sending copies to the presidents of the National Selected Morticians and the National Funeral Directors Association, the chairman of the Mississippi Board of Embalmers and President Ronald Reagan.

On the way to the cemetery, Father Eagan asked Riles, “Charles, did I see Miss Brantley drop something?”

“Yes, Father,” Charles replied, “but you’re not supposed to know what they are.”

Charles Riles and I have teased one another many times over the years, but in all seriousness, I have never known a more caring person. His sympathies with grieving families or individuals are real. No matter what the circumstances, no matter what the station in life of the deceased, he has always conducted every funeral with utmost dignity. I venture to say he is Mississippi’s premier undertaker.

I long ago told him he can’t retire until after he has conducted my funeral.

Well, he’s pulled one over on me.

Enjoy your retirement, my friend.

And be sure to come and sign the book at my funeral.

Gordon Cotton is the curator emeritus of the Old Court House Museum. He is the author of several books and is a renowned historian.

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