Death of Gram Parsons
Makeshift memorial dedicated to Parsons in Joshua Tree National Park
|Date||September 19, 1973(official record)|
|Time||00:15 (official record)|
|Location||Joshua Tree Inn, near Joshua Tree National Park|
|Cause||"Drug toxicity, days, due to multiple drug use, weeks"|
|Burial||1973 at Memorial Lawn Cemetery, New Orleans, Louisiana|
The death of Gram Parsons occurred on September 18, 1973, in room eight of the Joshua Tree Inn, near Joshua Tree National Park. Encouraged by his road manager Phil Kaufman, Parsons again visited the park after completing his latest recording sessions. Earlier, he had confessed to Kaufman his wish to be cremated and his ashes scattered in the park in case he died.
Parsons traveled to Joshua Tree with his high school girlfriend, his assistant Michael Martin and Martin's girlfriend. Parsons spent time in the desert during the day and at local bars at night, consuming barbiturates and alcohol every day. On September 18, after injecting himself with morphine, Parsons overdosed. On September 19, he was declared dead on arrival at the hospital.
Following Parsons' death and in order to fulfill his desires, Kaufman and Martin arrived at Los Angeles International Airport in Martin's personal Cadillac Hearse impersonating mortuary workers. Under the impression that the pair had been hired by the Parsons family, Western Airlines released the body to them. They then took it to Joshua Tree and set it on fire. The burning casket was reported by campers to the local authorities, who investigated the incident and identified both perpetrators.
Parsons' body was partially cremated. His charred remains were recovered and returned to his family. Meanwhile, Kaufman and Martin were accused of grand theft and fined for burning the casket, while they also had to pay for Parsons' funeral. Parsons' remains were later buried in New Orleans.
Background and Parsons' death
During the 1960s, as a member of the Flying Burrito Brothers, Gram Parsons became fascinated by Joshua Tree National Monument. The singer visited the park several times. During the recording sessions held in the summer of 1973 (later released on the album Grievous Angel, in 1974), Parsons had reduced his use of heroin, but retook the habit as the recording finished. Incited by his road manager, Phil Kaufman, Parsons went on a trip to Joshua Tree in September 1973. He was accompanied by Margaret Fisher (his high school girlfriend, with whom he had recently resumed his relationship); assistant Michael Martin and his girlfriend Dale McElroy. Parsons drove Martin and McElroy in his new Jaguar, while Fisher flew from San Francisco.
Kaufman later declared that Parsons' attorney was preparing divorce papers for him to serve them to Parsons' wife, Gretchen Burrell, while the singer was in Joshua Tree on September 20. The travelers stayed at the Joshua Tree Inn, room eight. During the trip, Parsons often retreated to the desert, while at nights the group would visit local bars, where he sat in with the bands. Excepting McElroy, he and his companions consumed alcohol and barbiturates in high amounts. On September 18, Martin drove back to Los Angeles to resupply the group with marijuana. That night, after injecting himself with liquid morphine he had purchased from an unknown girl, Parsons overdosed. Fisher put Parsons an ice-cube suppository, and later on a cold shower. Instead of moving him around the room, she put him to bed and went out to buy coffee for Parsons, while she left McElroy to take care of him. As his respiration became irregular and later ceased, McElroy attempted resuscitation. As she failed, Fisher tried again upon her return. After further failed attempts, they decided to call an ambulance. Parsons was declared dead on his arrival to High Desert Memorial Hospital at 00:15 on September 19, 1973 in Yucca Valley, California.
Initially, the San Bernardino County coroner declared Parsons' death "natural causes, pending autopsy". An inconclusive autopsy was later performed. Fisher called Kaufman, who arrived to Joshua Tree on September 19. Fisher had cleared all of the drugs from Room Eight soon after Parsons' death, while Kaufman proceeded to search Parsons' car upon his arrival. Kaufman then drove Fisher and McElroy back to Los Angeles in Parsons' Jaguar to evade the police in case they were looking for the two women.
Kaufman then proceeded to make phone calls to the San Bernardino Coroner's office and found out that the body was being moved to Los Angeles International Airport to be transferred to Western Airlines. He then called the company and was told that the body was to be shipped to New Orleans for the funeral. The embalmed body of Parsons was reported stolen on September 20. Kaufman and Martin arrived to Los Angeles International Airport in McElroy's 1953 Cadillac Hearse and impersonated workers of a funeral parlor, claiming that Parsons' family had arranged for them to take the body to New Orleans via a chartered flight departing from Van Nuys Airport. The cargo manager could not find the transfer request along with his papers, but assumed that it was a last-minute change and decided to release the body to the two men. Kaufman signed the papers as "Jeremy Nobody", and proceeded to request a patrolman who parked behind the hearse to move his car away so he could load the casket. The patrolman helped Kaufman and Martin, who were struggling to move the coffin to load it. As a result of his nervousness for the presence of the patrolman and his previous consumption of alcohol, Martin drove the car into a wall of the hangar in front of the officer. The patrolman did not suspect of any illegal activity, and the two left with Parsons' body.
Earlier that year, Kaufman and Parsons had attended Clarence White's funeral. After singing an impromptu rendition of the song "Farther Along" while the casket was lowered, Parsons told Kaufman "don't let this happen to me" and explained him his desires to be cremated and his ashes scattered in Joshua Tree. When they arrived to Joshua Tree, Kaufman opened the casket and poured in five gallons of gasoline and set the body on fire. On their way back to Los Angeles, the two stopped to sleep off their drunkenness. When they woke up, the hearse did not start and Kaufman had to hike to reach a mechanical shop. The hearse started again after few repairs and the two returned to the road, where they were later involved in a car pile up on the highway after they rear-ended another car. A police officer stopped them and handcuffed both when several beers cans fell from the vehicle after one of the doors was opened. While the officer assured no other drivers were hurt in the accident, Martin slipped his hand out of the cuffs and fled with Kaufman after starting the hearse. Since the officer did not take the driver's license of either of the two, he could not identify them.
Following the theft, the casket containing the remains of Parsons was sighted burning by campers who alerted the park authorities. A green Western Airlines body bag was found beside the casket. The body was not properly cremated and 35 pounds of it were left. Witnesses saw a hearse speeding away from the scene that forced other vehicles off the road. Investigator Joe E. Hamilton declared after mugshots of the believed perpetrators were shown to witnesses from the airport that the police was close to an identification, and that they had a "possible" license number for the hearse. Kaufman and Martin were identified from the mugshots, arrested and charged with grand theft. While the two awaited judgment, the San Bernardino County Coroner declared to the press that Parsons' death was caused by "multiple drug abuse, due in part to whiskey, barbiturates and cocaine".
Kaufman and Martin were given thirty-day suspended jail sentences, fined $300 and charged $708 for the funeral expenses for the burial of Parsons in New Orleans. Kaufman then threw a benefit party to raise the funds to repay the imposed sanctions. The event was called "Kaufman's Koffin Kaper Koncert". Doctor Demento was the featured disc jockey, while beer bottles with the figure of Parsons on the label and the inscription "Gram Pilsner: A stiff drink for what ales you" were served.
A small family service was organized for the burial of Parsons in New Orleans. Shocked by the theft, failed cremation and the fund raiser, the family regarded it as a Kaufman publicity stunt and denied any promise between Parsons and his manager. He was buried at Memorial Lawn Cemetery with the epitaph "God's Own Singer". Kaufman wrote about his experience stealing the body of Parsons in his autobiography, Road Mangler Deluxe. The events were loosely depicted in the 2003 film Grand Theft Parsons, starring Johnny Knoxville.
Joshua Tree National Park does not officially recognize Parsons' link to the park, and his memorial does not appear on the maps. Rangers are given the option to tell the story, but it does not appear on brochures either. While Parsons was incinerated a quarter mile away from Cap Rock, the location is often confused with the actual place where it happened. Makeshift memorials and inscriptions are found around the rock, and cleared by the park caretakers. Tourists and fans of Parsons visit the site, as well as the Joshua Tree Inn, where a guitar-shaped statue to Parsons can be found on the outside. Room 8 is reserved by the current owner for people who ask specifically to stay there for its relation to Parsons and not offered to walk-in guests. The only remaining furniture from the time is a mirror found near the bed.
Parsons' former Burritos bandmate Bernie Leadon, who was in The Eagles at the time of Parsons' death, objected to the way Kaufman cremated him in Joshua Tree, describing it as "a partial burning" and not "a proper cremation."
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