The Secret Pageant Shop in the Funeral Home

Last week I watched fifty young women work on their bodies, wardrobe and talent for probably more than one year to showcase on stage in less than ten minutes. “What?” you may ask. Sound crazy, right? When I was an “up and coming” contestant, I took the challenge one step further. I trained for pageant competition at Billy’s Funeral Home and  beauty queen boutique.

One would think his place of business would be located in a  bridal/pageant shop that dot across our Southern landscape. You would imagine that the owner wore a shade of bruised blue eye shadow and had high ceiling fans in case of big hair accidents. No, to receive a PhD in poise, the queens lined up in procession to Billy’s Funeral Home and pageant shop.

To say Billy was the master of the human body is an under statement. Dead or alive, he was good at his trade. Billy used his funeral home tricks to remedy pageant girl atrocities. He boasted about the big plug of wax he used to fill a hole in Ann Marie Smith’s leg—an injury she sustained in a childhood accident. And for a finishing touch, Billy pressed a paper towel over the area to give the wax a porous look. He pioneered the fine and delicate art of wearing medical tape instead of underwear or “drawers,” as they are more commonly known in the South.

Twice a week, I faithfully traveled 180 miles to Sumter, South Carolina, dressed only in a leotard, high heels, and a smile. All day I did one thing: walk. “Ankles together, drop back, half turn to the right, half turn to the left, full turn, quarter turn, right stance, left stand, hesitation, line up,” Billy commanded as we negotiated our living bodies between caskets, urns, and “Jesus Called” telephone-shaped wreaths. Billy had set up two huge mirrors: one in the casket room and the other in the “grievin’ family room.”

With all the hours I spent walking, I’m sure I could have traveled to Atlantic City and back. There were only two rules: 1) When the doorbell rings, run and hide. 2) Always call before you come in case there is a dead body.

I never ate before I went to see Billy because the first thing he did was get out his trusty tape measure. He kept very strict records about each girl’s size. For lunch, I gnawed on hamster food while he ate a Big Jim Double Chili Cheeseburger and a large order of cheese fries. I think he ate that stuff just to test my willpower.

Some of y’all may think Billy was on the prissy side. In touch with his feminine side he was, but Billy was all man. And of course, he eventually added a beauty queen boutique in the funeral home stocked with swimsuits, acrylic pumps, and beaded gowns mixed with, you guessed it, caskets, urns and “Jesus Called” telephone wreaths.

Yes, Billy was the master. He taught me volumes about how good bodies can look—dead or alive. God love him.,


Jane Jenkins Herlong is a Sirius XM Humorist, international best-selling/award-winning author, professional singer, recording artist and award-winning professional speaker.

Jane is a member of the Speaker Hall of Fame and one of the 232 men and women to be awarded this honor including former U.S. President Ronald Reagan and the late General Colin L. Powell. 

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