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Tales from a Southern Undertaker

Steve Holland and I walk into the only gas station in town and everybody tells him hello. He replies, knowing each person’s first name. If they don’t know him as the local undertaker, they know him for being one of the longest serving members of the Mississippi House of Representatives. He’s represented the 16th District in Lee County as a Democrat since 1983 — a Democrat in a county and state that votes dependably Republican. Folks around town say, “I don’t like his politics, but he did a great job with Mama.”

We’re served our meat with two vegetables and pour ourselves some sweet tea. He fills his cup up and tells me, “See look here. Take you a big slug of it,” then gulps down a bit of the tea and says, “and then top it off again and you’re good to go!” He buys my meal and we return to his home at the Sadie J. Farm, his family farm.

He speeds around a curve on the two-lane highway near his farmhouse. The highway splits the tiny town of Plantersville, Mississippi, a rural community ten minutes outside of the city of Tupelo, in the northeast corner of Mississippi.

His small farmhouse is “back in the woods” on a lake next to a 100 year old church which he restored as a hobby project. One of those single room rural churches painted white. His grandmother grew up around this area and walked two miles to vote once women finally gained suffrage. Whenever he ran for his current seat for the Mississippi House of Representatives in 1983, she didn’t vote for him.

For two hours we talk about Steve’s storied life: as an undertaker who everyday approaches the job with a sense of dignity and respect as if it’s his Biblical duty; as a public servant for the people of Lee County; as a “New Testament man who believes that Jesus was a Democrat and that the government provides good services”; as a boldly defiant political figure willing to rail against the group-think ways of Mississippi politics; as a grandiose orator with poetic and profane quips that could come straight from the pages of the best southern literature; as a gospel organist who accompanies the church choir at the Plantersville United Methodist Church; as a whiskey drinker with a large appreciation for life and an appetite for all of its pleasures; and above all, as a generous and loving friend and family member.

He oversees an estimated 350 funerals per year at his three family-owned funeral homes. He says that in his business, he’s always working. People are always dying. “No matter what time of night or day, you show up,” he says. “And you need a sense of humor to be an undertaker.” There are parts of the job that he finds interesting and thinks people should know about but don’t. “People think that we hang them up by their ankles and gut them like a hog,” he says, which isn’t the case. There’s a brutal specificity about the language used in his business.

He glances at his watch just past five, which is the deadline for calling in obituaries to the newspaper. “Shit. A minute past,” he says. It’s a Sunday afternoon. “Let’s see if they’re still at the desk.” Somebody answers and he carefully spells out the name of the man who died while we have been talking to each other. He bats out more information about the obituary’s specifics. It’s some sort of listing to “add to the Holland directory, not an obit.” Information flies from his mouth with a speed that requires dedicated attention. He’s probably telling these details to the same woman he speaks to everyday, and she knows how he speaks, too. “I just got another body,” he says to her. It was somebody he knew. He declares the man “passed over the chilling waters of Jordan.” He’s essentially the man in the village who buries all of his friends.

After serving nine consecutive terms for the Mississippi House of Representatives, he will retire when this term ends, in light of a dementia diagnosis at the age of 61. He delivered an emotional speech to the House chamber during the 2017 legislative session where he said he’ll continue to “attack life with the gusto of a hound dog.” Despite his dementia — of which the severity depends on the day with an average of about “one out of seven bad days” — he’s highly functioning with no obvious mental lapses.

(Massive footnote: after I wrote this piece, Holland learned that the dementia diagnosis was incorrect and cited “a providential miracle.” His doctors suspect the short term memory issues were caused by another medical trauma he experienced several years ago, when he collapsed on the statehouse floor during a legislative session and became septic, resulting in a month long coma.)

Emmylou Harris plays throughout the small farmhouse as we talk. He’s wearing a royal blue t-shirt and beach sandals. He offers me a “cold one.” The expansive windows frame a nice view of the lake. His mother, Lee County Justice Court Judge Sadie Holland, lives on the other side of the lake and he glances towards her house whenever he mentions her. She’s 84 years old and an active Justice Court Judge in Lee County. His wife, former Plantersville Mayor Gloria Holland, lives down the road. “It was either this place or divorce and it’s been the best thing that ever happened to our marriage,” he says.

Steve grew up in this area of Lee County, where his family has lived for five generations. One of six brothers, he passed on farm life and went to college. He wanted to attend the University of Mississippi but his father, the late J.C. Holland, forced him to attend his alma mater, Mississippi State, where he received a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration. He worked part-time in a funeral home throughout school, which introduced him to the trade. After graduation he ventured to Washington D.C. to work for U.S. House Representative Jamie Whitten. When Ronald Reagan was nominated by the Republican National Convention, he attended as an alternative voting member. He says that Reagan’s words “enamored” him.

He’s since become a Democrat and fought fervently for “the least and last and most vulnerable of us.” His tenure in the House has proven an ardent commitment to the greater public good. He’s a champion for public health, bolstering the state’s disability and mental health services. Much of North Mississippi Medical Center’s success can be attributed to his positions on the appropriations and health committees. Everyday, in his business as a funeral director, he witnesses how the law affects death proceedings and thus he works to fix the bureaucratic burdens of death. As the son of a farmer, he’s promoted Mississippi’s agricultural economy.

Old, young, weak, poor, and disenfranchised — these are the people for whom Steve Holland works. His sponsored bills and voting record reflect a dedication to a multitude of public goods like improving access to education and building rural infrastructure. He pledges his loyalty to the people of Lee County in his fight for the rights of all Mississippians, particularly children and senior citizens. He cares for veterans and police officers. By supporting measures requiring more transparency and accountability in state government, he encourages commerce and development with balanced tax laws. He memorializes great Mississippians and celebrates the state’s rich arts tradition, wishing to share Mississippi’s culture with the rest of the world. And typical Holland-style, he makes laws for fun, with resolutions to create official days like the Mississippi Hugs and Kisses Day for Senior Citizens, a population who needs more joy in their lives, he says.

With his retirement, Mississippi is losing a vast knowledge of the rules and workings of the Mississippi state legislature and a firsthand witness and participant of contemporary Mississippi politics. He’s the longest serving representative from North Mississippi in Mississippi’s 200 year history and has been a member of numerous committees.

Whenever he stands up to speak in the House chamber, everybody on the floor listens, even if they hate him. They never know what he’ll say. He’s notorious for his passionate speeches which broach the obscene. In 2015, the Clarion-Ledger awarded him with the first ever You Golden-Tongued Devil Award for being the state legislator with the most entertaining statements. As proof of why he won, the Clarion-Ledger cited a quote from when he was arguing against another round of tax cuts and said, “I lust for the government. It has done so much for the people of Robert E. Lee County…Now we are in the lust of election year. I’ve survived nine elections. I could give a rat’s ass what happens to me.” They renamed the award the Steve Holland Golden-Tongued Devil Award after he withdrew his consideration from future contests, because it wouldn’t be fair with him in the running.

One of only a few white men who are Democrat in the Mississippi Legislature, Steve represents a certain strain of populist Democrat unique to Mississippi and other Southern states. He faces many challenges from opposing lawmakers in a deeply red state, especially since the Republicans gained control of the House in 2011, which is now a supermajority. The current state of affairs disappoints him but his spirit remains determined. He’s grown more outspoken against the Republican agenda in recent years and often serves as a spokesman for Democrats statewide. In 2016, when the state faced yet another grossly underfunded budget, a group of Democratic lawmakers held a press conference to denounce the GOP’s handling of the situation. Holland said:

I was reminded of something that Harry Truman said after being in public life for thirty years. He said, ‘When I was a little boy, I didn’t know if I wanted to play the piano in a whorehouse for a living or be a politician. And thirty years later, I don’t know much difference.’ And that’s about the way I feel today about us being here. The Senate appropriations committee stayed in about two minutes. Two minutes! And sent this bill to the floor. I don’t know what’s gonna happen on the House side, if anything. But it’s pretty typical of what has happened this year. Now, I only got nine terms under my belt, and even when I came here and it was all Democrats, we had committee hearings, and we had budget hearings, and we involved the people and all of the sacred partners and members of the state government…in formulating this state budget. That don’t happen anymore! It’s a pure dictatorship, from the top down. And you can see the results of that dictatorship. It’s obviously broken.

In that same year, the Republican-led legislature passed a bill which legalizes discrimination based on sexual orientation. Calling for a repeal, Holland delivered a statement that plainly begged for Republicans to have a discussion with the Democrats. He said, “Think. Look at perception. Perception is everything today…People all around the world are looking so negatively at this state right now and we’ve got enough problems without that. We just simply ask the leadership… [to] debate this issue of repealing this disastrous act.” The law went into effect in June 2017.

Holland has sponsored dummy motions intended to provoke Republicans n two separate occasions. He put forth House Bill 150 in the 2012 legislative session to rename the Gulf of Mexico the “Gulf of America,” as a way to criticize the priorities of the legislators who sought to create anti-immigration laws. He sarcastically told ABC News, “I think this is a real conservative approach. Get rid of all references in the State of Mississippi to Mexico. To hispanics. To people that don’t look like us, who do not speak our language.” He later told the Daily Mail, “I didn’t do it to be funny but more so to give a parallel of how insignificant are the issues that this far right crowd is pushing as their primary agenda.”

After the election of President Donald Trump, who ran on a campaign promise to build a wall along the US/Mexico border, Holland sponsored House Concurrent Resolution 50 to urge “the State of Mississippi to donate one million dollars to help build the ‘great wall’ dividing the United States and Mexico.” He submitted this in a year when Mississippi’s budget was over $300 million dollars short, as an obvious jab at the Republican’s mismanagement of the state’s money — thanks to the Republican supermajority, tax cuts were passed which have caused a shortage of funds and created a budget crisis.

In 2013 his mother, Justice Court Judge Sadie Holland, was mailed ricin in an incident in which President Obama and U.S. Senator Roger Wicker were also sent the poison. The attacker was a man from Steve’s district who once challenged Steve in an election. The man tried to frame it on a local Elvis impersonator (Tupelo is the birthplace of Elvis).

The story caught the attention of writer Wells Tower, who came to Tupelo to investigate for a piece to be published in GQ Magazine. Tower spent some time interviewing Steve at the Sadie J. Farm. Their interview lasted late one whiskey-soaked night and Wells Tower recorded the entire conversation, which included some very crude proclamations. He published them in the GQ piece. “I make a lot of statements and they aren’t always the best ones,” he admits. “I catch hell for them too and a lot of times I agree with the mail.”

During a legislative session in 2015, House Speaker Philip Gunn tried to eject Holland from the chamber floor after tempers flared during a debate. In Steve’s spirited objections, he cited a rule which prevented the Speaker from removing him, claiming that the people of Lee County voted him to be there and that means he gets to stay on the floor. It’s alleged that Steve said the Sergeant at Arms would have to bring a gun if they want him out, though he denies he said that and expressed that he wished the whole ordeal never would have happened.

Upon Holland’s announcement of dementia this year, House Speaker Gunn led a prayer for him on the chamber floor. Sid Salter, columnist for the Clarion-Ledger, wrote of his retirement, “His lasting contribution in the Mississippi Legislature won’t be the long list of outrageous pronouncements. It will be his steadfast concern for matters of public health and welfare and for defending the rights of the poor that endures.”

Even at the age of 61 and at the onset of dementia, he works nonstop. His abundance of energy is evidenced in him changing seats throughout the conversation from the couch to his desk chair, which he knocks against his wooden desk in animated bouts of excitement. His phone chimes every few minutes with text messages. Every now and then somebody calls from work or a friend calls to check up on him.

He invites me to a party he’s having on his farm next month with live music, fried chicken, and booze. A dance party with the diverse people of north Mississippi: Democrats, Republicans, Methodists, Baptists, whites, blacks, farmers, cooks, doctors, lawyers, undertakers, preachers, queers, and artists. He tells me it’s his rural hideaway of art and intellectualism. “I live a very public life and this is my sanctuary,” he says.

Several years ago he spent time writing a book called Tales from a Southern Undertaker, which he wrote by hand and kept in a leather briefcase given to him by his former boss, U.S. House Representative Jamie Whitten. He was overseeing a funeral at First United Methodist Church in Tupelo and somebody broke into his car and stole the manuscript. Steve went public and pleaded for its return. In an interview with Mississippi Public Broadcasting he told them it felt “like losing a child,” prompting criticism and hate mail.

Authorities caught the thief but he didn’t remember where he ditched the briefcase. Steve didn’t press charges, but the man had stolen jewelry from another car and was sent to prison. Steve had a chance to ask him if he remembered where he threw it out and the man said he did. Steve found the briefcase sunbaked in a drainage ditch by a large public housing development in Steve’s district. But the manuscript was gone. The man said he thought there might be money in between the pages and threw them out one by one while driving down the road.

In the 2000s, Steve went back to college and received a M.A. in Southern Studies from the University of Mississippi. He’s an academic, and sometimes delivers guest lectures at various Mississippi colleges. Part of the Southern Studies curriculum required him to study one southern figure. Steve chose Elvis because of Elvis’s connection to Tupelo. Instead, his advisor Charles Reagan Wilson made him focus on the writer Flannery O’Connor. When speaking about his admiration for O’Connor’s writing, he says she “brings it hard!” and pounds his fist for emphasis. He likes that she’s tough yet God-fearing.

He delves into an idea about southern-ness and undertaking and how southern deaths are a parallel for how the South progresses. He describes the Mennonite funeral he was at earlier in the afternoon. Mennonites are earthy people, he says, and their funerals are the most basic because of the rules of their society. If a certain percentage of a population dies every year, then that’s a huge number of loss in a small Mennonite community. So does that culture eventually die?

The latest manifestation of Tales from a Southern Undertaker — which I’m here to help him writeis urgent because of his dementia. “I’ve lived a very interesting life and I’ve got to get that stuff down,” he says. When he shared his dementia to the House chamber, he told the members, “I reveal this diagnosis today not for sympathy but to simply ask for your understanding and your patience for this journey…As a professional Southern undertaker, I have looked death in the face for over 40 years now. I have no fear of the end game, and I expectantly look forward to the fulfillment of the promises of my faith and spirituality.”

A year ago, his father passed away after suffering from dementia. The life celebration was “a grand Holland send-off.” He mentions the event a few times throughout our conversation. His family is a cremation family, he says, but his younger brother showed up and ramped up the theatrics, so they buried his body at his brother’s wishes. He’s used to this kind of drama surrounding a funeral, so he was able to handle it.

He shows me a Facebook post he wrote about his father after spending some time at his graveside yesterday:

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I’m from Mississippi and currently live in Birmingham, Alabama. Email me at smcalilly at gmail

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