Funerals of the Wild Westby P-Francone
The days of Buffalo Bill, Jessie James, Wyatt Earp and Butch Cassidy are long gone but have been recounted in many western movies over the years, but how much do you know about the funerals of the Old West? These were turbulent times, with gunslingers starting duels on the streets of Tombstone, AZ, cowboys and Indians fighting for control of Indian Territory (present day Oklahoma) and bar fights breaking out in every saloon from New Mexico to the Alamo. Many people died, in battle and from disease, and this of course led to the need for many funerals.
In these days, coffins were homemade or made by a furniture store owners, who also served as the funeral directors of the time. Family members and neighbors would gather together before the burial and eat funeral food such as fried chicken, dumplings, pie and potato salad. They would all exchange gossip and tell stories about the deceased. Eventually, when the time came, they would all gather around the coffin, which would be usually be resting on a pair of wooden sawhorses. The minister would give a sermon and read the funeral service, then the pallbearers would load the coffin on a farm wagon, which would carry it to the local cemetery. The mourners would walk or ride along in the procession to the cemetery, and once there, they would all gather around the grave as the minister spoke the final prayers for the deceased. Many of the mourners would ‘take on’, or mourn loudly, if the family didn’t take on loudly, people would usually question whether the family actually cared much.
Most funerals of the Old West were not very extravagant, they were simple and fitting to the days, reflective of the cowboys’ mantra, “Few cowboys ever owned much. The primary reward of being a cowboy was the pleasure of living a cowboy’s life”. Many people were buried in the Boot Hill cemeteries, so called because of the high numbers of people who were killed while wearing their boots (such as in a gun battle).
There were however different traditions for different classes and for people from different areas, for example upon the death of a calvary officer, a riderless horse would take place in the procession, with boots placed backwards in the stirrups.
For the most part today, the Wild West no longer exists. The once prominent towns of the day have become ghost towns, and newer urban metropolises such as Phoenix, AZ, Sioux Falls, South Dakota and Los Angeles have sprouted up in their place. The horses have been relegated to farms while Fords and Toyotas have taken their place, turning the once dirt trails into bustling Interstates and freeways. However, this hasn’t stopped many lovers of the old ways from attempting to recreate their passion. Television shows such as HBO’s Deadwood, exhibits like Montana’s Wild West Living Museum and rodeos such as Rodeo Austin and the Calgary Stampede continue to celebrate the bygone era. Also, there are people like Wild West fans Arthur and Winifred Wilkinson, who make an annual pilgrimage to Tombstone, Arizona.
These fans, from Lancanshire, England were married in Tombstone in 2002 just blocks away from the O.K. Corral. On their annual visit to Tombstone in 2009, the couple was unfortunately run down while crossing a street. These Wild West aficionados received a sendoff that they could only have ever dreamed of, in the town of Tombstone. The funeral procession was led by an Indian Chief and a brigade of both Union and Confederate soldiers into the Arizona cemetery.
The 350 guests all dressed up in Wild West costumes, and Dolly Parton’s Keep on the Sunny Side was played during the service. Arthur was remembered by many for his Civil War reenactments, where he always played a Southern Confederate. Their friends and family however will carry on, as the old cowboy proverb goes, “It’s not how many times you get bucked off that counts, its how many times you saddle back up”.