Uncle Bush's Premature Funeral
Still A Novelty
by Carol Batey,
It was a muggy Sunday in June as a crowd of people pushed and shoved toward an open-sided canopy near the Cave Creek Church.
And there he was, right in the middle of the throng. Twenty-year-old Roland Barnette, like thousands of others, had come to witness the most outrageous event in years: a funeral for a live man.
Bush Breazeale's premature funeral, held in 1938, got attention nationwide. The 74-year-old man had simply decided it would be nice to hear some eulogies while he was still alive, so he staged an entire ceremony.
It was a novel idea and was cause enough for a festive occasion, which both surprised and annoyed Bush, area newspapers reported.
"They sold soft drinks right there close," Barnette said. "Cokes were a nickel apiece."
And there was a multitude of thrill-seekers, including some vacationers from Ohio who camped out overnight on the church's lawn. Newspapers reported seeing cars from 14 states, and representatives "from every state in the Union," not to mention the local yokels who turned out en masse.
Roland Barnette recalls traveling the 12 miles from his parents' house to Cave Creek in the back of a friend's pickup. Albert Moore, the proud owner, also picked up Edna and Glen Manis before setting out for the funeral.
"The road was crowded on both sides," Barnette said. "They opened up the gaps in the bottom of the valley, and charged 25 cents for parking - the neighbors made a profit off it."
Around 2 p.m., cars pulled over to make room for the hearse, complete with a coffin in the back and Bush Breazeale sitting up front.
"Uncle Felix, calm as a September morning, sat in front of the preacher, peering through overhanging sycamore branches," reported Floyd Strong of the Roane County Banner. "A slight smile played around his lips. Not seeing the crowd, but lifted up to search the blue beyond the top of a giant oak, Uncle Bush's eyes held something that was not in the faces of the crowd around him."
Music was furnished by the Friendly Eight Octette of Chattanooga, who sang "Where We'll Never Grow Old," and "The City of Gold." Fred Berry of Knoxville was also on hand to sing, "There's a Gold Mine in the Sky."
The sermon was preached by the Rev. Charles E. Jackson, who commented on the appropriateness of such an occasion.
"It is interesting to find an individual who takes time from the ordinary procedure of life, in this day of feverish and restless activity, to the thought of tomorrow and anticipate the great adventure called death," he said.
"If any of you in the audience have come here with the thought that this is to be purely an exhibition and picnic affair, let me disabuse your minds of that idea at the outset.
If a lot of those rednecks out there had to face the music before they passed out, it would improve their way of living, the preacher said.
"Mr. Breazeale never intended that it should be anything but a solemn service and the preacher would never have accepted the invitation to be present, had he thought that that would be the spirit of the occasion," Jackson continued.
The preacher also told the crowd the funeral "is not a bad idea.
"If a lot of those rednecks out there had to face the music before they passed out, it would improve their way of living," he said. "This may mark the day of a new era in funerals."
But while the actual funeral was a serious affair, the celebration went on into the night, Barnette said. Parents held their children up on their shoulders to witness the goings-on, and an estimated 10 people fainted from the heat. Afterward the illiterate Bush signed autographs with an "X".
The funeral was a claim to fame for Uncle Bush, a bachelor who had lived with first his parents, and later his sister.
The Roane County native was pleased with the proceedings, The Banner reported. He said the sermon was the finest he'd ever heard and was well pleased with the "doin's and goin's on".
"This is more fun than sparking in the back seat of a car," he was heard to say. "Just liked to know what the preacher would say about me, I guess."
The old man did express concern over all the publicity, and said he never intended for his funeral to be "such a big stir off." He had planned to have a quiet affair, he said, until the newspaper got "aholt of it" and let everybody know.
Bush also told the press he had never married because he couldn't get the women he wanted and wouldn't have those he could get. His best friend was an old mule, which was smarter than some people, he said.
Bush had planned the funeral for some time, and had built his casket from a walnut tree near his home. He told the Rev. Jackson he was past the alloted age of three score and ten and was living on borrowed time.
"I lay my health all to eating corn bread, fat meat, buttermilk and butter and running ridges at night when hounds are on a fox chase and laying out on ridges and getting fresh air," he said.
Barnette said the community "just accepted" the odd funeral. "Why, if he wanted it that way, why not?" Barnette asked.
The premature funeral was the only one he would have, Bush told the crowd. "And I'm mighty well pleased with it. When I die there won't be another one."
He was true to his word. Five years later, on Feb. 11, 1943, Bush was buried in the homemade casket, at a service attended by virtually no one.
Roland Barnette was 20 years old when he went to Bush Breazeale's funeral in 1938. He saved the clipping from the local newspapers because he knew they'd be interesting someday, he said.
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