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NOTE: This spoiler was submitted by Gojee.
The opening shot is of a house in flames and a young man running away.
The next scene shows a young boy standing in front of an old, dilapidated wooden, house holding a rock. A couple of older boys egg him on, and he throws the rock through the window. An old man (Felix Bush, played by Robert Duvall) with a wild grey beard and a shotgun starts running towards them and they scatter. The young boy runs into the barn, is caught by Felix, and is so scared that he throws up. Felix lets him go.
We see Felix nailing a "NO TRESPASSING" sign to a tree at the bottom of his drive. A priest drives up, but Felix is very rude to him. The priest tells Felix about the funeral of a mutual acquaintance that is happening the next day and invites him to join. Felix rejects him and the priest leaves.
That night, there are thunderstorms and Felix starts feeling very sick. He has nightmares/flashbacks to the burning house and a young woman standing on the road in the woods. He wakes up, and we see that there is a photo of that same woman tacked above his bed. He wraps himself in a blanket and goes into the barn to be with his mule, which is also his best friend. He says, "I always thought you would be the first to go" and lays down.
When he wakes up the next morning after this near-death experience, he is a changed man. He hooks the mule up to a buggy that hasn't been moved in decades and drives into town, attracting a great deal of attention.
He goes to church to speak to the priest and tells him "I reckon it's time to get low," and tries to buy himself a funeral before he dies. The priest tells him that he can't buy forgiveness/heaven and refuses. A young man (Buddy, played by Lucas Black) overhears this conversation and sees Felix pocket a giant wad of cash as he leaves the church
As Felix is unhooking his buggy, a town troublemaker starts heckling him "go away, we've heard the stories, we know who you are, there's woman and children here, etc" Felix ignores him until the troublemaker throws something at the mule, at which point Felix kicks his ass.
Buddy goes to work, where his boss is Frank Quinn (Bill Murray), a funeral director. Frank is depressed because no one is dying and business is bad. Buddy tells Frank about Felix and they to approach him. Once they get to the "NO TRESPASSING" sign, Frank is chicken and sends Buddy up to the house by himself, with the promise that if he makes the sale he gets a commission.
Buddy he goes up to the house and is nearly shot by Felix. Once he explains himself, Felix invites him in for dinner and serves him a delicious rabbit stew. Buddy comments on the beauty of the wooden dinner table, and that it seems to be put together by magic. Felix asks if Buddy has heard any stories about him. With some reluctance, Buddy admits that he has heard that Felix has killed a man.
Felix comes in to the funeral home the next day, and there is a comical conversation where he makes clear that he wants a festive funeral before he dies, and he wants to invite everyone who has heard a story about him to come to the funeral and tell the story. As Felix walks out on the funeral home he bumps into Mattie (played by Sissy Spacek) and it is clear that they once knew each other and that Mattie admired him. She later tells someone that she once thought him to be the most interesting man in the world, and good-looking too.
There is a montage where Frank and Buddy take Felix to get his picture taken (he purposefully tries to look as crazy as possible), hair cut, funeral suit measured. etc. they make posters with the picture and put them all over the county. They go on the radio to advertise the funeral and Felix unexpectedly announces that he will hold a raffle to see who will inherit his land after his death; people should send the money for the raffle tickets to the Quinn funeral home.
Money starts pouring into the funeral home; they are literally drowning in it. There's a discussion where they decide not to put it in the bank.
Later on, Mattie goes to visit Felix. They reconnect and are getting along swimmingly, and we find out that he used to court her. It's going great until he invites her in for tea and she sees the photo of a young woman above his bed. She is shocked, he looks guilty, and she storms out.
Felix demands that Buddy drive him somewhere, but he won't tell him where. The drive for hours and hours, into the next state. Finally they arrive at the church of Rev. Jackson (played by Bill Cobbs), who clearly knows Felix. Rev. Jackson asks if Felix has asked for forgiveness and has made peace and it's clear that Felix has not. He says "I made my own prison and I've lived in it for 40 years." Felix asks the Rev. to speak for him at his funeral because "there's some things I need to say but I can't say them myself. I need someone to speak for me." The Rev. refuses and Felix storms out of the church. Buddy and the Rev. have a few words; turns out that Felix built the gorgeous wooden church that they're standing in.
On the drive back, Felix suddenly and vehemently demands that Buddy stop the car out in the middle of nowhere, in the pouring rain. He gets out and walks to a gravestone that says Mary Lee and begs for forgiveness.
At around this time the funeral home is robbed, and Buddy is attacked and knocked out. He had hid the money in a casket and the robbers don't find it. Frank finds Buddy and tends to him. Felix storms in and says that he has changed his mind and he doesn't want a funeral. Frank is flabbergasted; he knows that this will bankrupt him as he has "obligations." Buddy clues him in to what happened and Franks decides that Rev. Jackson is the key to this dilemma. He goes to the Rev.'s house and basically stalks him until he agrees to speak at the funeral.
Felix goes to Mattie and they have a veiled conversation. He said that back when they were young he had never loved Mattie, and couldn't for the life of him understand why she was interested in him, but found her very pretty and wanted to spend as much time with her as she would permit. Once, when he came to call on Mattie, he saw Mary Lee, her sister and a married woman, and fell in love. Mattie asks him if he had anything to do with her untimely death. Felix cannot give a satisfactory answer and they part on unfriendly terms
Finally, it's the day of the funeral. It's festive, with a band, dancing, and food. In the barn, Felix has made his own casket and it is incredibly beautiful. Eventually, Felix goes up to the microphone. He has a hard time speaking, and then he sees Mattie arriving into the crowd and it seems to give him a little bit of extra resolve. He tells the story of the love between himself and Mary Lee, and says that they planned to run away together. When Mary Lee did not show up at their rendezvous he gets a bad feeling and goes to her house. There he finds the livid husband, pushes him aside and runs up to the bedroom where he finds Mary Lee beaten within an inch of her life. He tries to rescue her when the husband comes into the bedroom and starts attacking him, after setting fire to the lower level. He fights off the husband and turns back to Mary Lee. Then, before he knows what happened, he realizes that he is flying out of the bedroom window and that the house has exploded behind him. He starts crying at this point and swears that he would never have knowingly left Mary Lee behind. We have a flashback to the burning house that we saw in the opening scene.
Felix goes back to his house, and the funeral continues. In a musical sequence we see a family win the raffle, and the crowds and vendors gradually leave. The last ones to leave are Frank, Buddy, the Rev., and Mattie. They all say a tender goodbye and drive down the road. Felix stands there and watches them, and as they fade away in the distance a vision of Mary Lee appears on the road. Felix smiles and walks towards her.
The final scene is in the little graveyard on Felix's land, where he has buried all of his animal companions through the years. Present are the Rev., Frank, Buddy, and Mattie. The casket has been lowered. Mattie tosses a photo of her sister down onto the casket, followed by a handful of dirt, and walks away.
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Felix Bush (Robert Duvall) is a scary hermit, who harbors a deep secret. He decides to have a living funeral, ostensibly so other people can tell their stories about him, but really because he wants to tell his secret before he dies.
Turns out he had an affair with a married woman and tried to run away with her. This led to her death at the hands of her husband and he feels responsible.