Funeral Potatoes (Paperback)

by Joni Hilton


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Sydney hates funerals (overlong programs, creepy corpses, warbly singing). But she loves gooey, cheesy funeral potatoes. And these days, between her ward and neighborhood and extended family, it seems like there’s always a funeral for the Relief Society president to attend. Not fun occasions, of course, but not terribly traumatic either—which is good, considering how crazy life is already with taking care of four little kids and one inactive brother.

Ted is the lone black sheep amongst the blond-haired, blue-eyed OllerVanKeefers (rhymes with overachievers), and his lack of a testimony coupled with his lack of overall ambition has Syd concerned—perhaps a bit too concerned, given how she sometimes prays for a not-too-serious car crash to shake him up a bit. But when a real crisis hits the family and Syd sees the shadowy side of picture-perfect happiness, she realizes that she’s been praying for the wrong things and that nobody needs to run faster than she has strength—even if (especially if) you’re a former all-state track star. You’ll laugh out loud with this enchanting tale that will help you find the joy in your own less-than-perfect family and in life’s little comforts, like funeral potatoes.

Product Details

  • Pages:  336
  • Size:  6 x 9
  • Released:  02/2012
  • Book on CD:  Unabridged

About the Author

Joni Hilton is the author of fifteen books, holds a master of fine arts degree in writing from USC, is an award-winning playwright, and is frequently published in major magazines. She is also a weekly columnist for Meridian Magazine and a writer for Music and the Spoken Word. She is married to Bob Hilton, and they are the parents of four children.

Chapter 1

I am completely against funerals. Death you cannot escape, but funerals are entirely optional. Here’s what’s wrong with them, in order:

  1. They go on too long. An hour is plenty of time to recall a person’s high points and to remind everyone about the plan of salvation. Having more than five speakers is ridiculous.
  2. They require long drives to cemeteries, where all the women’s high heels get stuck in the lawn.
  3. They usually feature warbly singers. Let’s be honest.
  4. Children find viewings creepy. And so do I.
  5. They require lavish, expensive floral arrangements that are then dragged to the cemetery, where they promptly wilt in the weather—wasting money that could have been put towards grandchildren’s educations. I’m just saying.
  6. People don’t dress appropriately for them anymore. Oh, sure, a few folks wear black, but more and more you see tattered jeans and scruffy hair, as if this final tribute were no more important than running to the hardware store in the middle of painting a bathroom.

Now, I will grant you that the gathering of relatives and lifelong (deathlong?) friends can be a good thing, but why can’t we just have a party? Why must we stare at the iffy makeup job on the poor fellow in the coffin? Why must we listen to speakers droning on until we wonder if going to funerals could cause strokes in and of itself, and thereby result in more deaths? Why must we analyze funeral sprays of tightly budded gladiola spears and wonder if they’re going to get the chance to bloom? Why must we worry that the pall bearers are going to drop the casket? Don’t we have enough on our minds with the passing of a loved one? Why do we have to deal with all these arrangements?

So back to my party idea. Some cultures do indeed have a wake, where folks simply get together to laugh and reminisce, to share great food and great memories. Isn’t that what we all want our loved ones to do? And it would cost a lot less than most funerals, which usually include a luncheon afterwards anyway.

I want mine to be a party-hats-and-confetti affair. No crying, no whining— only celebrating. I plan to hit the veil running and joyously burst onto a scene of dead relatives who are nudging each other and whispering, “Look out—she’s back.” I hope my sleeves will already be rolled up, because I plan to buckle down and work the second I get there, probably on genealogy records or missionary work. Will I stop to eat? Absolutely, and I expect truly heavenly meals. Will I enjoy the occasional massage? Of course! How else are the zillions of ministering angels going occupy their eternity, if not cooking and catering?

Which brings me to funeral potatoes. This is the one vestige of funerals that we should keep because it’s too traditional to LDS culture to abandon. That’s not all: it will please me to know that those I’ve left behind are packing on the calories. Every American Mormon I know likes funeral potatoes, even the snobby foodies who cringe at the pounds of oil oozing out of the cheese and sliding all over the plate with the sour cream. Say what you will, this is our culture’s comfort food, and we are glued together with the dairy products dripping from every bite.

So let the festivities begin, and let them begin with this recipe, which you are to memorize, lest you be kidnapped someday and your only chance for freedom is to win the hearts of your captors with a recipe that will leave them weak and groaning:


2 10.75-oz. cans cream of chicken soup

2 C. sour cream

2 C. grated cheddar cheese

½ C. chopped onion

½ C. butter, melted

1 32-oz. bag frozen Southern-style (not shredded) hash browns, thawed


2 C. finely crushed Corn Flakes

2 T. butter, melted

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9×13-inch baking dish. In a large bowl, stir soups, sour cream, cheese, onions, and the ½ C. melted butter. Fold in hash browns. Pour mixture into pan. Combine crushed corn flakes and butter; sprinkle on top. Bake for 30 minutes.

There are dozens of variations—add crumbled, cooked bacon, or use Gouda instead of cheddar, for example—but they are blasphemous and should be avoided. Thou shalt not mess with an existing recipe that everyone likes. (I personally could add a number of commandments to the list you already know, and that would be a good place to start.)

Incidentally, a good fridge magnet for you to paint at your next Relief Society activity is this: FAT PEOPLE ARE HARDER TO KIDNAP. And it’s got to be true, right? I mean, think about a crew of guys trying to get a gigantic burlap sack around a tubby victim, and then dragging that person out of there—nearly impossible. I’m just saying.

So now you have your marching instructions if I should kick the bucket anytime soon. Party. Potatoes. People.

I guess I haven’t said much about the people yet. I want everyone there, of course. There are far too many cousins who don’t even know each other, and I think every death should launch a spontaneous family reunion. I mean something good ought to come of it, right?

Allow me to introduce the main cast of characters who had better show up at my funeral . . .I mean, my party.

Let’s start at the bottom of the heap. My brother Ted is the family ne’er do well. If you don’t have a ne’er do well in your family, you are probably lying and could possibly be the ne’er do well yourself.

For those of you who’ve never heard the term, a ne’er do well is a lazy, irresponsible person who is sometimes described as worthless or good for nothing. But I think those descriptions are a bit harsh, or at least a bit outside the gospel idea that there’s hope for everyone. Sure, perhaps Ted has “never done well” in his life, but that doesn’t mean he never will, right? Call me naïve, but I still believe Ted will grow up one day, stop drinking beer just to fry my mother, stop fishing on Sundays just to fry my dad, and admit that we’re all onto something pretty exciting with the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. I have hope that he will stop dodging his home teachers, find and marry a wonderful woman in the temple, and become the family patriarch that we’ll all look up to once Mom and Dad have their final going-away parties.

Ted is the oldest, in his early forties, and still hasn’t had a steady relationship or a steady job for more than six months at a time. He looks like one of those tycoons who retired at thirty-five and let his hair grow long, minus the tycoon part. He wears sleeveless parkas and an occasional mustache, and has sandy blonde hair that looks intentionally messy. If someone told you he was in a rock band, you’d believe it. He lives in a trailer with an Irish setter named Hooligan and makes lamps out of odd objects that he sells to tourists in beach towns where they lose their judgment just long enough to think an oil can would make a cool lamp for their family room and they take it home to Omaha.

I estimate that Ted has supplied approximately six percent of all garage sale items across America.

We invite Ted over for dinner every Monday night; he always accepts and always enjoys the meal. Then I invite him to stay for family home evening, at which point he always has something more pressing to do. But he’s polite and loves my kids, which earns him an eternity of weekly dinners as far as I’m concerned. He comes to their plays and ball games, and once I almost got him to a baptism. But he always stops short of coming to church or delving into a serious talk about it. Unless, of course, it’s a funeral. He does attend those, because, well, it’s just too disrespectful not to.

My husband, Cory, thinks Ted’s behavior is one elongated rebellion against the Over Achiever family, a moniker he gave the OllerVanKeefer family (my ponderous maiden name) shortly after he met us all. And he may be right. All the other siblings went on missions, finished college, earned advanced degrees, and/or stayed active in the Church and made their parents proud. Ted missed the boat. Ever since then he has been trying to prove he never wanted on in the first place.

The next sibling is my sister, Donna. Donna is the Scrapbook Queen. Oh, I know you think you already know a scrapbook queen, but trust me: Donna could keep a number of therapists busy with her obsession (all while she made scrapbooks of their therapy sessions). And, yes, she probably has a separate charge card that her husband, Jerry, has no idea exists. What’s that? Did I hear you gasp just now? Is it because you thought this sort of duplicity was a secret? Please. I’ve talked to the cashiers at the craft stores and a huge percentage of their shoppers are women with separate charge accounts for their scrapbooking.

Donna’s husband, Jerry, is a successful obstetrician who has delivered countless children, and Donna has scrapbooked nearly every one of them. In addition to keeping meticulous photographic records of her own five children, she also takes pictures of any of Jerry’s patients who want in on her neurosis. She does a whole presentation for them when they give birth, bestowing them with a book that documents their entire pregnancy with serrated scissors and embossing powder. Donna has added a whole wing to their already huge home that is dedicated entirely to this hobby. She has more paper than the New York Times and more Crickets than the early pioneers.

Born just after Ted, she raced through school at breakneck pace, making two posters for all her reports instead of the required one. Ted stumbled to the finish line in high school; Donna was right on his heels as valedictorian of her class. In college she completed a double major—graphic art and drama, both of which are evident as she bounds into the hospital rooms of new mothers, no flourish spared, and presents them with their “First Scrapbook,” one that Donna thinks will inspire them to great heights in cutting and gluing but that will undoubtedly intimidate them and prevent them from ever attempting a similar effort.

Needless to say, many an observer has been utterly lost in the wake of Donna’s speedboat, and Ted almost spun as she whizzed by. While he was still struggling to find himself, Donna served a mission to Norway and looked as if she might light the entire rest of the world on fire as well.

And, oh, the applause. Everywhere she went, Donna was dazzling. It wasn’t just her fluffy head of blonde curls, either. It was her energy. Teachers, classmates, and acquaintances of every kind all stood in awe of Donna. But what probably bothered Ted the most, as he was working on his Prodigal Son act, was that our parents were bursting with pride over this whirling dervish daughter. A virtual shrine to her accomplishments went up in the hallway. Ted had to pass the ribbons and awards every day, knowing he’d been out-shined. More than once I heard him call it the “Hall of Shame.”

Two more boys came along shortly after Donna—both athletic wonders who accomplished so much that Donna served as a motivator and cheerleader for them instead of being a threat. The first was Neal, whose high school principal singled Neal out during the graduation ceremony as the most outstanding student the school had ever had—an all-around great guy who excelled in both sports and academics and was so handsome he was voted Senior King. Neal was blushing as red as his cap and gown, and the rest of us were beaming. All except Ted, that is, who was chafing a bit as his younger brother was joining Donna in the group of OllerVanKeefer champions.

Just as Neal was leaving for his mission to Italy, Chad stepped into the spotlight as a national debate champion and MVP of his high school’s baseball team. I could almost read Ted’s thoughts: Was there no end to the awards in that blasted hallway?

Chad then served a mission to Ecuador. As Neal became a CPA, Chad became a lawyer. Both of them married in timely fashion and started darling little families of tow-headed, blue-eyed children, all earning stars in kindergarten and keeping up the OllerVanKeefer name.

This is when I saw Ted finally soften. He stepped into the role of uncle as if it had been designed with him in mind. When their dads were busy working, Ted was the great big kid who took them to creeks where they could catch frogs or to a friend’s ranch where they could ride horses. He played video games with them, taught them magic tricks, and took them camping, where they saw their first shooting stars. I often wished there could be Uncle Awards—Ted would need his own hallway.

And where do I fit into this lineup? I’m the baby, Sydney Rose, born just after Chad. I came into the world thirty-three years ago, just as Mom was turning forty and Dad was saying they were too old to have any more kids. But there I was: another OllerVanKeefer kid who shared the same relentless drive, blonde hair, and freckled cheeks as all the others.

I followed the boys in sports, trying everything they did but finally settling on track. I loved the wind in my hair, the burn in my legs, and the great feeling of winning a race. The trophies began to accumulate, a scholarship followed, and soon I had graduated from college, married, and settled down with Cory, a wonderful guy I’ve known since high school. Cory has no interest whatsoever in track but can play any musical instrument you hand him.

By now Ted was thirty-two and at least mature enough to be cheering from the sidelines when I won a local marathon at twenty-three. He even snapped photos and laughingly said they were for “Mom and Dad’s Hall of Fame.”

Soon after that, Cory and I learned we were having a baby—and I found that while I wasn’t running marathons, I was nevertheless running every which way as more children arrived. A morning run in the cool weather was plenty now; then I’d dig into my day, grateful for every minute (well, almost every minute) of watching my kids grow. Donna dutifully scrapbooked them, sure I would not do the job justice, and I was grateful to be off the hook on that one.

“You live a charmed life,” Annie said to me in the kitchen over lunch one day. She’s tall and curvy and reminds me of a gypsy. Annie and I worked together in Primary a couple of years ago and are still tight pals. She must have seen me raise my eyebrows. “You do, Syd,” she said. “Your husband is the elders’ quorum president, you have a beautiful home, and your kids all get along.”

I laughed. Okay, the first part was true; Cory was the elders’ quorum president. But our house was usually a shambles and my most frequent prayer was for help in teaching our kids to get along and love one another. We even have a jar filled with quarters from times we’ve caught the kids being rude or unkind to each other. I waved at the scene before her—the scattered toys and books, the basket of laundry waiting to go upstairs, and two of my kids tugging on an action figure until its head popped off. Vinyl lettering on nearly every spare wall of our home virtually bursts with quotes about love and kindness, my subtle—or not-so-subtle—attempt at subliminal parenting.

But Annie’s husband was out of work, they were looking for a smaller home, and she had finally moved her two sons into separate rooms to keep them from killing each other.

“It’s all relative,” I said, bringing up a couple of sisters in the ward. “Look at Theresa. She’d love to have kids—any kind of kids. And Jen says she cries every night because she’s not married. I mean, really, we’re blessed.”

Annie shook her head and took another bite of my spinach salad, the one I make with strawberries, avocados, and a blender dressing that includes Worcestershire sauce. “Trust you to be grateful.”

I faked a remorseful face. “I am truly sorry,” I said. “I need to repent of that.”

“Not funny,” she said. “Of course I’m grateful. I’m just jealous, too.”

Now I laughed. “I don’t think you can be both at the same time.”

“Well, I’m doing it.”

I handed her a second roll, ones I picked up at the farmer’s market that morning as my kids were wailing and begging to get to the honey stand. Blackberry honey sticks were their favorite, and Cory loved buckwheat honey.

I popped the action figure’s head back on and put it on top of the fridge, sent the kids to separate places to play for a while, then sat down again with Annie. Just then my cell phone rang and I picked it up while pouring each of us more lemonade. I listened, unblinking. I could feel my eyes turning glassy. Finally I thanked the caller, one of my cousins, and hung up.

“My favorite uncle just died,” I said. “Uncle Dan.”

Annie threw her arms around me. “I’m so sorry,” she said. She smelled like night-blooming jasmine. “And I’m sorry for accusing you of having such a smooth life. I can be so short-sighted sometimes.” She offered to babysit the kids, bring us a meal, make calls for me—all things I couldn’t even process just yet. But her love came through and I thanked her for that. Annie left me to break the news to my kids and gave me another long hug at the front door.

“Call me for anything,” she said. I nodded.

I made a call to Cory, who stepped out of a meeting and offered to come right home. I told him there was really nothing he could do, but he cut his day short anyway just to ease my schedule and help with the kids.

More calls poured in, I made a few myself then simply sat on a chair and cried. Ellie, my oldest, came and put her little arm around my shoulders. “I guess you’ll be making more funeral potatoes,” she said softly.

I laughed through the tears. I know she was trying to comfort me, trying to offer up wisdom from her little nine-year-old soul, but it sounded so dismal and somber, almost like a warning. This looks like a call for (drum roll here) funeral potatoes.

And who knows? Maybe that’s how she sees my funeral potatoes— the sign of a grave event, the culinary form of an ambulance. It was definitely time to rally the troops and draw together as a family, and in our culture, the first thing you do is get out the pots and pans.

Funerals and Families

by  Shauna  -   reviewed on  September 07, 2012

I LOVE Joni Hilton's humor. This book takes an interesting look into families and how they function. Filled with humor it is fun to read, yet will make you really think about yourself and your family. I love the Book Club Questions at the end of the book... Here are a few: *Do you know any families who are high achievers? *How do you measure success? *Does you family place and inordinate amount of focus on appearances? *Have you ever felt your problems outweigh another person's? *Is competition healthy, or is it rooted in jealousy and resentment? She also gives a wonderful Funeral Potato recipe! YUM!

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