The Harriman Record
Thursday, Oct. 24, 1957

The Man Who Listened...

by Betty Magee
Record Staff Writer

Bush Breazeale's Rehearsal
Attended By 8000 'Moaners'

     During the years thousands of funerals have been held in Roane County - but there has been only one funeral where the "corpse" sat in the front seat of the hearse and chatted with the driver in his own funeral procession, and then walked into the church to hear what the minister had to say about his past life.
     The central figure at this funeral - one of the most colorful characters in Roane County history - was Felix Bush Breazeale, who heard his own funeral preached on June 26, 1938, five years before he died.
     What Mr. Breazeale planned as a quiet service, where he could "hear what the preacher has to say about me while I'm still alive", turned into a bizarrre celebration which drew 8000 people and attracted nation-wide publicity. The event was publicized through Associated Press, United Press, NEA picture service and appeared in Life Magazine as an illustrated story. A. Summers of Kingston had charge of this publicity.

*          *          *
Lived Alone In Cabin     
     In Dogwood Community

     Mr. Breazeale, a bewhiskered gentleman known as "Uncle Bush", lived alone in a cabin in the hills in the Dogwood Community for most of his 78 years.
     His idea of having a rehearsal funeral probably began years before. At one time he was charged with murder and several misdemeanors. Later, he joined the church and then was acquitted of those crimes. In order to make sure that the facts of his life were correctly set out, he planned the funeral.

     He built a black walnut coffin from boards sawed from trees on his own farm. The coffin was used in the service at Cave Creek Baptist Church. His explanation for the home-made coffin was that "boughten" caskets were cheaply constructed and he wanted a good one. The coffin was completely lined and fitted by a Knoxville funeral home. Five years later he actually was buried in the polished walnut coffin.
     Complete funeral arrangements were made for the rehearsal funeral, even to the pallbearers, who were the fox-hunting friends of the "living corpse". The Rev. Charles E. Jackson, a former pastor of the Rockwood Christian Church, came all the way from Paris, Ill. to deliver the funeral sermon.

*          *          *
Got Burying Clothes;     
     Feted In Knoxville
     The week before the funeral, Mr. Breazeale made a special "excursion and outfitting" trip to Knoxville, sponsored by Mr. Summers and the News-Sentinel.
     In Knoxville, Mr. Breazeale was given a complete outfit of clothes, was a guest of the Tennessee Theatre where he saw his first talking picture, and appeared on Station WNOX. He was quite thrilled with the "big city" trip, but complained of the noise.
     Hours before 2 o'clock, the time set for the celebration funeral, cars filled with people from the county, nearby cities, neighboring states, and from all over the nation, had crowded into every available parking place in the Cave Creek Community.
     The funeral procession was headed by the undertaker from Quinn Funeral Home in Loudon, who had charge of the services. He was followed by numerous press cars and the hearse.
     The hearse contained the highly polished coffin, covered with flowers donated by Knoxville, Chattanooga and Lenoir City florists. Mr. Breazeale sat in the front seat with the driver.

Click here for research notes about this picture

     The procession formed at Mr. Breazeale's home in Dogwood and proceeded toward the church. It was stopped about two miles from the church by a traffic jam, with cars double-parked on each side of the narrow road. Stalled traffic in the center of the road completely blocked the procession.
     While state highway patrolmen were opening a lane for the procession, hundreds of people who had already parked their cars, stopped to shake hands or chat with "Bush".
     There were no mourners in that crowd and nowhere was there the slightest feeling of solemnity. The crowd expressed a holiday mood as the procession moved on toward the church.
     The procession stopped where the grave tent had been set up. Newspaper shutter cameras clicked while the "pallbearers" lifted the empty coffin out of the hearse and carried it to the tent.

*          *          *
Minister Stresses That     
     Death Holds No Fear
     The service began, although repeated requests for quiet were ignored. Music was furnished by the WNOX quartet, a quartet of Kingston citizens and the Friendly Eight of Chattanooga. A vocal solo was given by Fred Berry of Knoxville.
     Then Mr. Jackson stood up to preach the funeral sermon. He said he first thought the idea was fantastic, but later changed his mind. He added, "It might be wholesome for everyone to hear his own funeral while he is living...Here we speak of life, for if life is all right, there is nothing to fear about death. There are no tears and heartaches, but only happiness at this service."
     Mr. Jackson said that it was a time for sober reflection. "If a lot of those roughnecks out there had to face the music before they pass out, they would improve their way of living. This is a 1938 streamlined funeral. We may see a lot of them."

*          *          *
Chatted With Hearse Driver     
     On Way To Graveyard
     After the services, Mr. Breazeale shook hands and chatted with the people who crowded around him for several hours. Souvenir hunters stripped the casket of its flowers.
     Comments about the funeral at the time were both favorable and unfavorable. But many people found the whole situation very humorous.
     Mr. Breazeale and his homemade coffin were featured at Harriman's Fourth of July celebration the same year as the rehearsal funeral.
     The week when he made the appearance at the celebration, an advertisement appeared in The Harriman Record urging people to see the "living corpse" and his homemade coffin. The ad said he would be in Harriman in person, all day - free. It suggested that everyone talk to and shake hands with Roane County's most publicized citizen.
     During the July Fourth celebration that year, Mr. Breazeale threw the first ball opening the baseball game between the Papermakers and Loudon at the Harriman baseball park. He also made several appearances at the Princess Theatre during the day.

     During the last years of his life, Mr. Breazeale made many other personal appearances in theaters and was featured on a "Believe It or Not!" program of Robert Ripley.
     On February 9, 1943, the "living corpse" actually did die. Then a real funeral was held for him.
     The funeral five years before had really been almost like a rehearsal, for the real one followed much the same pattern.
     It was held at 2 p. m. on a Sunday afternoon at the Cave Creek Baptist Church. Quinn's Funeral Home had charge, just as they did in the rehearsal. Burial was in the Cave Creek Cemetery.
     But the huge crowds and the publicity were gone. Mr. Breazeale had his quiet funeral service at last.

Research notes and comments on the Betty Magee article.

     There are some important discreptancies woven through Ms. Magee's article, if the eyewitness accounts of the background of this story are to be believed. I have made some notes where her statements have differed significantly from other credible sources, sometimes multiple credible sources.
     To settle the apparently common misconception about the lumber Uncle Bush used to build his coffin. He cut down one tree and had it milled into boards. From those boards, and he would have had far more than he needed to build one casket, he selected the heartwood, the best cuts of lumber, and crafted them into his casket. He did not cut down multiple trees for this purpose. This whole story started with a discussion about a large black walnut tree near Uncle Bush's cabin and what plan he had for the tree. The one tree is at the heart of the story.
     The second common misconception that I want to dispel is that Uncle Bush lived alone most of his life. He did not live alone. He simply did not marry. He lived with his parents until they died. Then with a sister. Finally with a nephew. He was not a loner or a hermit. He had many friends and was well known in his community. He was a member of Cave Creek Baptist Church and had been for 30 or 35 years.
     The third common misconception is a relatively minor one compared to some of the others, but in the interest of accuracy, an important one. Many of the sources I have seen, including this one, refer to Uncle Bush's death as five years after the funeral. I want to bring out the fact that he died in February, 1943, four years and seven months after the funeral. That is almost five months shy of five years.
     Her narrative states that Uncle Bush got charged with murder, joined the church, and then was acquitted of the crime. She obviously does not know the story, at all. Bush got into trouble, spent much of 1892 in jail, then was acquitted of the crime. That all took place when Uncle Bush was 27 years old. He didn't join the church until he was in his early fortys, ten or twelve years later.
     Ms. Magee assumes that Bush's idea of having his funeral early brewed for years under the surface, but my research and the feeling I got from the eyewitness accounts and interviews with Bush was that he had never thought of the idea until he was seventy-three years old and it was brought out in a conversation with Augustus Summers. He had planned to build his own coffin, but there is no indication that he ever had a prior thought of having his funeral before he died. It was something that he and Mr. Summers agreed would be a sound idea. Bush decided the time was right and that he would do it. Mr. Summers was a big help with communications and advertising, otherwise it never would have been the event it was.
     The point she makes, about the funeral procession stopping in front of the tent so the pallbearers could extract the casket and carry it to it's place under the tent, is not accurate. The funeral procession was bogged down on the road as the highway patrol was trying to clear a way for the hearse. The hearse, with Uncle Bush inside, was already thirty minutes behind schedule. When the hearse got to within sight of the tent, Frank Quinn, the undertaker of Quinn's Funeral Home, in charge of the procession proper, ordered the pallbearers, some of whom were not present due to the traffic, to extract the casket from the hearse and carry it to the tent. You got the impression they were some distance away from the tent. Uncle Bush strolled along behind and received much attention from the crowd.
     "A vocal solo was given by Fred Berry, of Knoxville." Correct! Remember the weak reference to 'a Knoxville funeral home' that lined and fitted the casket to get it ready to serve it's function. That was the Berry Funeral Home and the undertaker there was Fred Berry. It seems Mr. Berry was playing a big role in this story to get such an off-hand mention. The same goes for Augustus Summers and Frank Quinn.
     "Mr. Breazeale and his homemade coffin were featured at Harriman's Fourth of July celebration the same year as the rehearsal funeral." From this statement one gets the feeling that there was a huge gap in time before this took place. Perhaps months. The funeral was on June 26, so it was exactly 9 days after the funeral when Bush was the featured celebrity of the July Fourth celebration in Harriman. For the two events to have been so close together, it just seemed like a very misleading way to phrase the sentence, if one was aware of that fact.
     Another point is one that I think is a misconception about Uncle Bush's motive for having the funeral. I have read in several places, including Ms. Magee's article, the reference to the funeral as a 'rehersal' funeral. I have never gotten the impression from any of the eyewitness accounts or quotations from Uncle Bush that he ever thought of this funeral as a rehersal. From the first thought of it, all the way to it's completion, it was never referred to by any of the principal players as a rehersal. It was to be his funeral, held early so he could hear what was said about him. That was a big concern of his.
     Another term she uses, that I feel is based on 'conjecture of the writer' (writer's tendency to draw certain conclusions that may not be entirely accurate, in a best effort to write an interesting article), is the term 'celebration' funeral. The impression one gets from her writing is that Bush set out to have a rousing good time with his casket and the attention he was getting. Nothing could have been further from the truth. The public that arrived for the funeral turned the event into a festive occasion with the interest, enthusiasm, and humor they brought with them. Uncle Bush never had in mind anything but a small, solemn, sincere affair in which he could hear his own eulogy and know that it was to his satisfaction. I believe he would have been content with just that, but, due to publicity, it became something he never could have conceived of.
     Next, she declares that when he did die, a "real funeral was held for him. The funeral five years earlier had really been almost like a rehersal, for the real one followed much the same pattern." Then she lists the three similarities to the 1938 funeral: It was held at two o'clock in the afternoon on a Sunday, at the same church, with the same funeral home in charge. She leaves the reader with the impression that a duplicate funeral service was held. She obviously did not know what actually happened. Yes, those three factors were the same, but Uncle Bush left specific instructions as to the interment service he wanted. He was to lie in state for one hour at the gravesite, he was to be buried in his black walnut casket, and there was to be no eulogy, songs, or preaching. He wanted a simple interment service. No more. That was exactly what he received, according to the eyewitness accounts I read.
     The last comment I have about Ms. Magee's article is that there is a serious paucity of pictures. There is not a single picture of the funeral on the day it occurred. There is a picture of a church building, without even one person in the picture, and it is entirely possible that it is not even the Cave Creek Baptist Church. All-in-all, it appears that this article was just thrown together without much thought, planning or research. Perhaps she was working against a deadline. To her credit, she did bring certain things to light that I have not seen in any other source. I did not know that the NEA picture service played a role in the publicity of the event. I didn't know that it was the Tennessee Theatre in which Uncle Bush saw his first talking movie. I also didn't know that it was the Princess Theatre where he made personal appearances during the July Fourth celebration in Harriman.

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