Vicksburg — Like the proverbial cobbler’s child who goes barefoot, Charles Riles, undertaker, has not made his funeral plans.
But, he’s thinking about it.
And, he knows what his epitaph should be: “To Help the Brokenhearted.”
“That is all I have ever wanted,” he said.
Riles’ legion of friends knows him for his quick wit and sense of humor, but they also know he is caring and genuinely compassionate.
He turned 70 recently and has been in the funeral business at various levels since he was 14 — that’s 56 years and longer than anyone else in the state. Others may be older, but they are no longer active in the profession.
Riles was born in Vicksburg in 1946. His mother died suddenly when he was 9, “and from that time on I knew I wanted to be a funeral director.”
Charles Finane buried Riles’ mother, and Riles remembers him “because of his dignity and his kindness to me. He brought me a pad and a pencil and said, ‘You’re going to help me.’ Well, I never helped him do anything, but I certainly felt important.”
Many years later, Riles directed Finane’s funeral as well as that of Dr. R.A. Street, the attending physician when Riles was born, “So it looks like the entire cycle of life and death blended,” Riles said.
While other children played with toys, Riles had a fictitious funeral home. Its name was Pine Forest Memorial, and he still has the drawings.
From his desk in the classroom at Carr Central High School, he could see Fisher Funeral Home. It was a time when funeral homes also provided ambulance service, and he would strain to see what was going on when the siren sounded.
“Charles, if they need you, they’ll call you,” his teachers would say, and he believed some of them thought he needed guidance or psychiatric help. Then, as the years passed, he buried most of those teachers.
Riles began his life’s work by washing the hearses when he was 14 — too young to have a driver’s license — so his friend Joe Loviza would take him to the job. Riles slowly worked his way inside and, in 1965, he was licensed as a student embalmer.
“It has been a learning process,” he said.
He has learned from many: Hardy Katzenmeyer first hired him and taught him. He also learned from the older clergy, from other funeral directors and from Mrs. Carmen Fisher — “a great person to learn from.”
He considers his profession a calling, for it isn’t an 8-to-5 job as “people don’t die at convenient times. Death is God’s business.”
Before there were funeral homes, family and friends of the deceased prepared the body for burial, often built the casket, dug the grave and planned the service. Undertakers sold caskets and provided the embalming service at home and horse-drawn hearses.
Funeral homes came into vogue around 1900. They provided services in a comfortable setting. There can still be home funerals, Riles said, “if you can get the casket through the doorway.”
Funeral traditions also have changed. There was a time when family and friends sat up all night with the deceased, but, sometimes, maybe at 2 in the morning, they would go home, “and that caused a problem with insurance, because the coffee pot would be left on and the building open.” So, the local funeral directors agreed on regular hours of visitation. Another decision was there would be no more Sunday funerals, a move welcomed by the ministers “though they said they would do what the people wanted.”
A closed casket is not unusual today, though Riles always gives the family the opportunity to view the body. In times past, the casket would be open in the sanctuary during the services and sometimes again at the gravesite.
“That was bad,” Riles said, quoting Clifton McInnis Sr., an undertaker in Clarksdale who said, “There will be no daylight showings.”
The figure in the casket “is not just a body, and it must be treated with dignity,” Riles said. “That is something I insist on.”
Little things the families want are important, such as should one be buried with their glasses or in hunting clothes? He has buried people with cigarettes, sandwiches, whisky and photographs.
One lady was buried with a bottle of fine wine in her hands, and Riles told her children he would have to tape the bottle to her hands so that it wouldn’t roll over, making bumping noises inside the casket “or we would lose all of our pallbearers.” A few days later, when he told the lady’s daughter he forgot to include a corkscrew, she said, “Oh, Mr. Riles, don’t worry. A good Episcopalian can always get into a bottle of wine.”
Another friend was buried with golf clubs in the casket, and the priest, who knew the deceased wasn’t a very good golfer, told the family, “I appreciate what you have done, but they didn’t do him much good down here.”
Some things are unintentionally funny. Riles recalls the funeral of an extremely large lady, so big that a special casket had to be built for her.
“It seemed we had to get half of the congregation to be pallbearers. The minister was presiding in all his ‘ecclesiastical dignity,’ as I recall it, and he prayed, ‘Dear Lord, we know that yesterday you opened wide the gates of Heaven to receive Mrs…” Riles said.
Sometimes Riles has borne the butt of the humor, such as the time he went to a Delta community to bury an urn containing the ashes of the deceased. It was a dreary, rainy day and as he knelt to place the urn in the ground, he slipped into the grave. The next morning, one of the family called to see if he was alright, and he told her that only his dignity was bruised, “but why didn’t you come help me?” She replied that her doctor had told her not to lift anything heavy. It was also Ground Hog Day and another friend called to ask, “Did you see your shadow?”
An incident of several years ago makes Riles think there should be restrooms in cemeteries. He was conducting the funeral of an elderly lady, who was also a close friend, when her husband told him, “I have to go to the restroom,” and Riles assured him that he would take him “just as soon as this is over.” The husband said, “You don’t understand me. I’ve got to go now.” Riles said he will never forget that as the funeral procession was coming up the hill in Vicksburg’ Cedar Hill Cemetery “he and I were going down the hill looking for a tree.”
Riles said he has used his sense of humor in certain cases because, “With a majority of the people I know, I can tell you something funny about them. A touch of humor is usually comforting, and always the family has something funny to tell me. Just for those few minutes, we are remembering the good times. There’s a therapy in that.”
A sense of humor is important, he says, for working with death is hard. “You are usually burying your friends, for in most cases your competitor is burying those who don’t like you.”
Being able to laugh doesn’t mean that undertakers don’t cry, and Riles will tell you he has wept at times, such as when a child was murdered by her mother “and people lined the street all the way to the cemetery in tribute. I cried for that.” He’s likely to shed tears for a baby, for a young person, even for someone who has lived a long, happy life, as death of a friend often comes as a surprise “but it is still hurtful. You can’t justify, but you can accept.”
He also remembers that at a dear friend’s funeral, tears were running down his cheeks when another friend asked, “What’s wrong, Riles? Did the check bounce?”
Charles Riles graduated from mortuary college in Nashville and since has owned Fisher Funeral Home, which he sold. He built and has operated Riles Funeral Home since 2002. He has also served as the chairman of the Mississippi State Board of Funeral Services.
The funeral business operates under the rules of the Federal Trade Commission, he said, “because there were some dishonest funeral directors. The FTC requires that all bills be itemized, which is not a problem with ethical funeral homes.”
A big change in the last 50 years has been the cost of a funeral. When Riles began his career, a nice funeral cost about $450, and, if there was an $800 funeral, “We joked ‘we’re going to light the chandeliers.’” Because of the escalating price of wood and steel, plus local cemetery charges, the cost now is $7,000 to $8,000, depending on the type of service, the cost of the casket and possible cash advances. The cost of building and operating a funeral home also is expensive, and Riles pointed out that a Cadillac hearse costs more than $100,000.
Cremations weren’t talked about too many years ago in the South, he said, though they were common in the North. A half century ago, the closest crematory was in Alabama, but Mississippi is now home to 18 or 19. About half the burials in the country are cremations.
“You can be cremated and still have a traditional funeral,” he said. “But you won’t need but one pallbearer.”
Riles’ interest in the past hasn’t been just in burials. He has researched and accumulated a library of histories of the funeral business in Vicksburg and the Religious Sisters of Mercy. He admired the nuns’ customs, their work and “their great dignity in death. It was a rough job because you got to love those little ladies in their old age — and then they would die — all of a sudden, they were gone.”
Riles doesn’t claim to be a journalist or historian — “I’m an undertaker” — but he has collected and published funeral stories from Vicksburg. His latest book, which he co-authored, is “Just Passing Through.”
Riles hasn’t done his work alone. On Jan. 18, 1969, he married Cil Hossley. They have three daughters and several grandchildren. In addition to being a wife and mother, Cil has been beside Riles in life.
“She’s quite the businessperson,” he said. “There’s nothing she doesn’t know about the business. She is a guiding force.”
He tells of the conversation he once had with Willis Jefferson, who established the first black funeral home in Mississippi. In speaking of undertakers, Jefferson said, “If we didn’t die, it wouldn’t be fair to anyone else.”
A funeral director never retires, Riles said. “He’s just buried in his work.”
Photos by Melanie Thortis / © The ‘Sip