I ran across this article while doing research and wanted to share it.
The last time I attended a cowboy funeral, I said a prayer. I don't pray often, at least not in a fundamental way, but on that day I said the following words: "Oh, Lord, please save me from cowboy funerals." I have no control over any funeral, not even my own, but I have made it known to one and all that I do not want a cowboy funeral - no horses, no wagons, and above all, no mournful procession from the church to the graveyard. Better yet, don't bury me at all. Lite me up like a homecoming bonfire, and then lovingly dispose of my ashes. When I told one of my closest friends that I wanted to be cremated, he said, "We can't do that." I ask why not, and he said, "'Cause when we lite you up, you're likely to burn for a couple of years." Smartass. He giggled when he said it, and then pointed out that all the Jack Daniels I drank over the years had probably turned me into a potential human torch.
Maybe so, but it's been a long time since I had a drink of anything that burns when exposed to sparks. I still make sparks every now and then, but I'm no longer a threat to erupt into flames. But there's no doubt that I'll die one of these days, and I just want to make sure nobody cowboys up my funeral. I figure that's a distinct possibility because most of my friends are cowboy types - you know, like ranchers, working and rodeo cowboys, and even some city slicker cowboys. Regardless of the genre, a cowboy is a cowboy when it comes to disposing of the dead - they just have to make a big deal of it. I'd seen all sorts of cowboy disposal rituals over the years, but nothing like the last cowboy funeral I attended.
Not too long ago, I went down to the barn to saddle a horse and go for a ride. I barely got in the saddle when my partner and running mate, Bubba Espinoza, walked up to me and said that Bill John Palmer had just died. Somebody had called on the telephone to tell him that, and it came as no surprise to me since Bill John had been fighting off cancer for some time. We knew him from back in our early rodeo years, when all of us were just cracking out and learning to ride or rope or whatever. As for me, I was trying to make it as a roper and bulldogger, and Bubba was riding bulls and doing some clowning now and then. Bill John was a saddle bronc rider, which made him an oddity down here in Texas. Most good bronc riders come from up north, but Bill John rode them well and made a good living doing it for quite a few years.
Like all of us, Bill John got too old to rodeo and settled down on a ranch up north of Paint Rock, across the river on a big spread his granddaddy and daddy had put on the map as one of the finest cattle ranches in Texas. We saw him now and then at old timer's reunions and the like, and seeing him was always a treat. He was just one of those guys you look forward to seeing again because he was so damned congenial. Nobody could make a man feel more at home than Bill John could, and as he grew into an old man, he naturally turned into a sure enough Texas country gentleman. When Bubba told me that he'd passed, I had to duck my head and ride back to the barn to keep him from seeing me get the sniffles.
Two days later we drove up to Paint Rock for Bill John's funeral, expecting it to be a sure enough big affair. Lots of people knew and loved him, and that meant a lot of people would show up. Paint Rock is a small town, just a village actually with hardly a paved road in town. When we got there about noon, the place looked like a ghost town. After driving around for half an hour, we finally found somebody and asked about the funeral. The guy we asked said the funeral was at a country church about twenty miles north of town, and he told us how to get there. We drove straight out to this country church, and I was absolutely amazed at the sight that greeted us. Here was this small wood frame church, sitting stark in the middle of the prairie with only a couple of elm trees around it, and a good five hundred cars and pickup trucks parked there. At least a thousand people had come to this funeral; twice the number I expected to see.
It gets worse. This little church had no air conditioning, no electricity, no plumbing except for an old outhouse, and no water. In fact, the church had not been used for anything other than reunions for more than twenty years, and it was starting to look a bit ragged. But the Palmer family had made sure it was clean and shined up as good as possible for Bill John's send-off. Since the church would seat only about 200 people, most folks would have to stand around outside. They threw up all the windows so folks could stand and look in, and they even had this portable public address system run by a gas generator providing the electricity. And folks, this was in August . . . in Texas. Have you ever been in Texas in late summer? Well, if you haven't, then you don't know hot until you've been here on a day like that particular Saturday we buried Bill John Palmer.
Most cowboys aren't dress up type people, and by that I mean they're men who sometimes don't even own a suit of clothes . . . and if they do, it's likely a winter suit. Now the womenfolk who hang out with cowboys are different because they're plenty dressy. If anything, they're too dressy. Bubba and I parked and joined the crowd gathering in front of the church . . . a big crowd. So here we were, a bunch of men dressed in ill-fitting suits and smelling of cheap cologne, and an equally large group of women wearing fancy dresses and smelling of nice perfume . . . and then the wagon pulls up and Bill John himself joins the party. Yeah, a horse drawn freight wagon (and a full team of four horses) - and with Bill John in a plain pine coffin. Six men pull the coffin off the wagon, then tote it over to a flat spot near the entrance of the church, where they put it down on the ground. That's when I noticed the fire. Yeah, a fire - on a hot summer day in Texas, with branding irons poked down into the coals.
Well, I asked around then about what was going on, and some guy said that Bill John had asked for all his friends to show up with branding irons so they could brand his coffin before they buried him. Right off, I started feeling fortunate not to have gotten the message about the branding business. Something about branding a feller before you bury him doesn't sit right with me, even if it is just the coffin getting branded. It makes you wonder if maybe they're afraid God won't recognize him as a cowboy when he gets to heaven, huh? Anyway, I didn't like the idea from the git-go, but it got worse - a lot worse.
After a while, a group of men gather around Bill's coffin and start branding it with their irons. Seeing them do that was touching and almost moved me to thinking I'd been wrong about the whole deal . . . and then the coffin caught fire. You just had to know it would - hot day, pine box, red hot irons. With all the smoke rising up from the branding, it was hard to tell at first that it had actually started to burn . . .but it did . . . and nobody had any water to put it out. Remember, the church had no well, no water, and there we were with a burning coffin, with Bill John on the inside, and it was starting to look like maybe he'd end up being cremated after all. Then somebody came up with a genius of an idea, and that's when things started to really get bad.
Maybe you already know cowboys well enough to see what's coming next, but if not, let me point something out to you. Cowboys don't go too many places without having an ample supply of beer close at hand. Yeah, I know, it's a funeral we're talking about here, and not even a cowboy would take beer to a funeral. But there is a good chance he might have a cooler of beer in the trunk of his car or in the back of his pickup truck Furthermore, quite a few guys there probably had already been drinking beer, and the first suggestion of what to do about the fire came from them. Beer drinkers always have a steady supply of moisture, not exactly in water form, but it will put out a fire. But when some guys step up and suggest they pee on Bill John's coffin, that goes over about like a turd in a punchbowl. Regardless of how great the crisis, you just can't be peeing on a dead guy's coffin - especially not somebody like Bill John Palmer who epitomized good old Texas congeniality.
A couple of guys decided to sacrifice their suit coats at that point and started beating out the fire. Within minutes, it was out . . . almost. But the branding wasn't nearly complete. Lots of friends still had not put their brand on the box as of yet, and so the sizzling of the pine continued until a second fire broke out - and this one was a doozy. Flames three feet tall jumped up all of a sudden, and that called for extreme measures. Having anticipated that another fire might occur, some visionary cowboys had already retrieved beer from their vehicles. When the second fire broke out . . . the beer came out, and before long the coffin was fire free - smoking like hell, but no flames. Men continued pouring beer on the coffin until it was safe to move into the church, which they did, and finally the services themselves started. I tried to get out of going inside, but one of Bill John's boys saw us and insisted we go inside.
The next half hour was one of the worse I've endured. I'd put it right up there with having a wisdom tooth extracted, or maybe with serving jury duty. Anyway, there we were in this hot little country church with no air conditioning, and not a breeze stirring except for the breeze coming off fans the women worked feverishly. Men in suits wearing cheap cologne were sweating, women were fanning and dabbing at their faces with tissues trying to control streaking make-up, and the beer-soaked coffin was stinking up the place . . . and for a while there I thought I'd throw up for sure. The service was awful, but not near as bad as what happened between the church and the old graveyard.
As it turned out, the graveyard was a good quarter of a mile from the church. That meant something like a thousand people would have to walk behind that wagon bearing Bill John body, and smoking coffin, down a bumpy track of a road. On the wagon riding shotgun was one of Bill John's sons, and driving was a grandson - a round-faced, chubby kid who looked scared to death. My guess was that he'd never handled a team of horses before, and that's why his dad was riding shotgun for him. Undoubtedly, Bill John had asked that the kid do the driving . . . and so he was doing just that. And so down the road we went toward the graveyard, kicking up dust and sweating even more now. People walking behind the wagon started to trail back a little to avoid the dust, and that's probably a good thing . . . because that's when it happened. A jackrabbit jumped up, right under the horse's feet, and the team boogered. Boy did they ever booger.
I've seen horses get spooked before, but these big old wagon horses went nuts. One of the lead horses tried to jump sideways, the one to the right of him reared up, and then the race was on. Did I say race? I should've said chase because the horses took off. I was up near the wagon when the horses bolted, and it started getting away from me in a hurry. I could see the kid fighting the reins, his daddy was hollering at him, trying to grab the reins out of his hands, and Bill John's coffin was bouncing around all over the place in the back of that wagon as it rumbled over the bumpy road at an ever increasing speed. I stopped, put my hands on top of my head, and waited for the disaster. Shouting men raced past me, chasing the wagon as best they could, but I knew it was all in vain. Nobody was going to catch that wagon.
The chase lasted only about two hundred yards. The team left the roadway and headed toward a draw not far away. The last I saw of the wagon, it was making bigger and bigger bounces and starting to gets on two wheels from time to time. Then the horses crossed a rise, the one just before the draw or dry creek bed, and the wagon broke went air born . . . and so did Bill John and his smoking coffin. What I saw next was such a horrifying sight that it froze everyone in their tracks. Even the fifty or so men chasing the wagon stopped and watched the ghastly sight developing before their eyes. The wagon hit the big bump, went air born, sent the coffin even higher into the air, and then rumbled across the draw. By then, both the kid driving and his dad had exited the wagon. Like the rest of us, all they could do was stand and watch the horses and wagon disappear across the prairie. And the coffin? Well, it went about twenty feet into the air, then came crashing back to earth with a horrible smashing sound . . . and as soon as it hit, out of the flying dirt and dust came Bill John, wearing a nice brown suit and taking off like superman. He flew straight up out of that cloud of debris and dust, did a perfect forward one and a half that would've made any professional diver turn green with envy, and then disappeared from sight down into the draw. A horrified gasp went up from the crowd of onlookers, and then we all took off running in that direction.
I'm an old fart and don't run too well these days, so lots of folks got there before me. When I topped the rise going down into the draw, I saw a hundred men standing in a circle, staring as if they couldn't believe what they were seeing. I ran up and forced my way through the crowd, and there sat Bill John, leaned neatly against an old cottonwood stump, with hardly a hair out of place. I couldn't believe it. His eyes were still closed, but I swear to God he was smiling. And at that point, I couldn't stop myself from laughing. Damned if old Bill John hadn't pulled it off. He had turned a completely disastrous funeral into something nobody would ever remember as a bad deal. How could you? Who could've ever topped that act?
And so, we stood there looking at Bill John sitting there smiling, with some of us laughing lightly or smiling at one another, but without a word being said. Finally, a man stepped forward and said, "I don't know about you boys, but I'll give him a 90 for that ride." That broke it. After that lots of fellers stepped forward to give old Bill John a little pat on the shoulder, and some of them even said goodbye to him. And lots of laughs were shared then, and some tears shed, and handshakes and hugs passed around among us . . . and nobody could have been prouder of the way it all ended than Bill John. Rest in peace, old buddy. You always did have lots of class.
And since nobody will every have a cowboy funeral that can top that one, just take me off the list, boys. Just make sure you don't dump my ashes in a hog lot somewhere.
C. Duhon, 9/17/07