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The Fight Over Gram Parsons' Funeral

Jim McCrary / Contributor / Getty Images

Who owns the rights to final goodbyes?

It's a lurid rock and roll tale from that time when the idealistic 1960s were decaying into the more cynical 1970s: musician Gram Parsons, having just finished recording his second solo album, "Grievous Angel," drove toward Joshua Tree National Park in California. It was a favorite retreat, a place to commune with nature and escape the pressures of life in Los Angeles.

It made sense that Parsons would need to escape. His music career was fairly new, really getting under way only five years before when The Byrds, already an established band with many hits, plucked him practically out of nowhere and added him to their line-up. Originally brought on as a keyboards player, his vision of bringing country music traditions to rock music was so strong that it changed the direction of the band, resulting in "Sweetheart of the Rodeo," a landmark album in country rock. "Sweetheart of the Rodeo" included what was to become a signature song for Parsons – "Hickory Wind," which he co-wrote.

Though Parsons hadn't been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or the Country Music Hall of Fame, he'd established a unique style – he called it "cosmic American music" – that made an impact on some of the most biggest stars of his time and earned him a following. He'd also adopted what Chris Hillman, his former bandmate in The Byrds, later called a "physical abuse program" of drink and drugs. So on that September day in 1973, Parsons likely felt increasing relief with every mile he drove further away from the city. He was going to a place he where he could relax, a place he loved so much he'd told friends that he wanted his ashes scattered there someday. 

"Someday" came too soon. Parsons died from an overdose of opiates and alcohol, holed up in a desert motel near Joshua Tree. He was 26.

Chaos followed. Parsons' stepfather began the process of transporting the body to Louisiana for services and burial. But friends of Gram's weren't ready to let him go. 

They stole his remains and brought them back to Joshua Tree, attempting to fulfill his wishes. At Cap Rock, the spot in the park Parsons had specified, his friend and producer Phil Kaufman splashed the casket with gasoline, trying in vain to create a funeral pyre. He was interrupted by police, chased from the scene and arrested. 

Parsons' remains made their way to Louisiana where a small family service was held, and they ultimately came to rest at Garden of Memories Cemetery in Metairie, Louisiana. A bronze plaque marks his gravesite there, adorned with lyrics from his song "In My Hour of Darkness":

Another young man safely strummed his silver string guitar

And he played to people everywhere

Some say he was a star

But he was just a country boy,

His simple songs confess

And the music he had in him,

So very few possess.

Parsons' remains may rest in Louisiana, but to this day fans continue to honor him at Joshua Tree National Park. They treat Cap Rock as a memorial site, leaving behind messages and artwork on rocks that are removed by Park personnel only to be replaced soon after.

So who really held the rights to Gram Parsons' remains, and which ceremony truly honored his life? Though rumors suggest that his stepfather's interest was more in securing his estate than in honoring his memory, it seems we should be generous about the likelihood that Gram's family loved him and wanted to honor him in a traditional way. Things might have been different had Parsons made his wishes explicit in a legal document, but the legal right was theirs to do as they wished. 

Regardless of that argument, though, Cap Rock is undeniably a place that resonates with fans as they remember Parsons and his vision of Cosmic American Music – a vision that influenced American pop music of the 1960s and '70s, albeit largely from behind the scenes.