Grave Spotlight

In a way, cemeteries are like libraries. They contain the final resting places of thousands of people, each with their own separate and unique story. Some of these people are famous, and their stories are well known. Most are not, but that doesn't make their life any less interesting or their stories any less worthy of being told and remembered.

Periodically, we'll spotlight a different Los Angeles-area grave. Every person has a story, and we will use this space to tell their story, through their final resting place.

After your tour of the virtual cemetery, don't forget to visit the official store (or the brand new downtown location) on your way out and pick up a souvenir or two. Thanks!

Gram Parsons

(Nov. 5, 1946 - Sept. 19, 1973)

Jan. 31, 2010 -- The death of musician Gram Parsons wasn't all that unusual -- a drug overdose in a cheap motel room. He wasn't the first to suffer that fate, and he certainly wasn't the last. But the journey made by his body after his death has become legendary.

Parsons was one of the early stars of country rock. He performed with the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, and later was a solo artist and performed with Emmylou Harris. In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine ranked him No. 87 on its list of the 100 Most Influential Artists of All Time (between No. 86, Tupac Shakur, and No. 88, Miles Davis).

Parsons was born Cecil Ingram Connor III, in Winter Haven, Fla., the grandson of citrus fruit magnate John A. Snively. At one point, Snively's companies were responsible for one-third of the Florida citrus crop. Parsons' father, Cecil, committed suicide in December 1958, when Parsons was 12 years old. Two years later, his mother, Avis, married Bob Parsons, who adopted young Gram.

While still in his teens, Parsons became interested in music, and performed in local clubs, including one owned by his stepfather in Florida. He formed a band, moved to New York City, and played in nightclubs and coffee houses, performing primarily folk music.

Parsons attended Harvard University, but seemed more interested in music than education. He left school after one semester, formed the International Submarine Band, and moved to Los Angeles, where the group recorded "Safe at Home" in 1968. Parsons joined the Byrds the same year, but left the group in 1969 to form the Flying Burrito Brothers.

Parsons described his musical style as "cosmic American music," an alternative country style which he defined as "a holy intersection of unpolished American expression: gospel, soul, folk, Appalachia, R&B, country, bluegrass, blues, rockabilly, and honky-tonk." It's also been described as country rock or progressive country. (The phrase also inspired the sign in front of the motel where he died.)

In 1970, Parsons was injured in a motorcycle accident and left the Burrito Brothers. He married model and aspiring actress Gretchen Burrell, and traveled throughout the United States and Europe, spending time with Mick Jagger and Keith Richard of the Rolling Stones. By this time, Parsons was heavily involved with alcohol and drugs, including cocaine, heroin, LSD and psilocybin, and his commitment to music and his ability to perform suffered. In 1972, Parsons met Emmylou Harris, and he asked her to come to California to sing on his first solo album, "G.P.," which was released in 1973 and helped to launch Harris' career. Parsons and Harris worked together again on the "Grievous Angel" album, which was released in 1974, after Parsons' death.

At about the same time, Parsons and Burrell separated, and Parsons began spending time with Margaret Fisher, his former high school sweetheart who had moved to California. While on tour in July 1973, one of the members of Parsons' band was killed by a drunk driver, and Parsons sang at his funeral service. After the service, Parsons told his tour manager, Phil Kaufman, that he wanted to be cremated in Joshua Tree National Park. Parsons and Kaufman made a pact -- whichever one of them died first, the survivor would take the other's body out to Joshua Tree, have a few drinks and burn it.

For many years, Parsons was fascinated by Joshua Tree National Park. Alone or with friends, he would often disappear in the desert for days at a time, searching for UFOs while under the influence of drugs. In the late summer of 1973, Parsons frequently spent weekends in the area with Fisher and Kaufman.

Parsons was scheduled to begin another tour in October 1973, and he decided to go out to Joshua Tree before hitting the road. Accompanying him were Fisher; his assistant, Michael Martin; and Martin's girlfriend, Dale McElroy. Parsons reserved two rooms at the Joshua Tree Inn, a small, cinder-block motel on the outskirts of the park, where he often stayed.

The foursome arrived at the motel on Monday, Sept. 17, 1973, and Parsons quickly started drinking, smoking marijuana, and using morphine and heroin. Two days later, Parsons overdosed, and passed out in Room 1 at the motel. Fisher revived him, and he seemed to be recovering. Parsons returned to his room -- Room 8 -- and went to sleep. When his friends noticed that he was having difficulty breathing, they called for an ambulance.

Parsons was taken to Hi-Desert Memorial Hospital in Yucca Valley, where he was pronounced dead at 12:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 19. He was 26. It was originally reported that Parsons had died of "natural causes," but the autopsy report listed his cause of death as "drug toxicity ... due to multiple drug use." Tests revealed a blood alcohol level of 0.21, and traces of morphine, cocaine and barbiturates in Parsons' body.

And then the story gets really interesting.

Parsons' stepfather, Bob Parsons, made arrangements for Parsons' body to be buried in Louisiana, where the elder Parsons lived. There have been some claims that, under Louisiana law, Gram Parsons' estate -- which included his assets as well as the remaining Snively fortune -- would go to his nearest living male relative, which was Bob Parsons. But the law would apply only if Gram Parsons had been a resident of Louisiana, and perhaps Bob Parsons hoped that having his son buried there could help to prove his legal residency.

When Kaufman heard of the plan to bury Parsons in Louisiana, he remembered the pact he made with Parsons. Kaufman called the funeral parlor in Joshua Tree and was told that Parsons' body would be driven to LAX, and then flown on a commercial flight to New Orleans. He called Martin, and borrowed an old, beat-up hearse that belonged to McElroy, which she and Martin used for camping trips.

Kaufman and Martin arrived at the loading dock at LAX on the evening of Thursday, Sept. 20, just as a flatbed truck rolled up carrying Parsons' coffin. Kaufman convinced an airline employee that the Parsons family had changed its plans and wanted to ship the body privately on a chartered flight, from Van Nuys Airport. Kaufman signed the paperwork with a phony name, loaded the coffin into the borrowed hearse, stopped at a gas station and filled a gas can, and headed out to Joshua Tree at about 10 p.m.

Kaufman and Martin drove 200 miles from LAX to Joshua Tree, and stopped at the Cap Rock geological formation. There, they opened the coffin, poured five gallons of gasoline inside, and tossed in a lit match. Afraid that the resulting fireball would attract attention, Kaufman and Martin quickly left and headed back to Los Angeles.

The smoldering coffin and Parsons' partially cremated body were discovered by visitors to the park at about 9 a.m. the next morning. The visitors also told police that they saw a hearse containing two men near Cap Rock before the coffin was found.

Back in Los Angeles, Kaufman and Martin read in the newspapers the story of the theft of Parsons' body, the attempted cremation in the desert, and the speculation as to who might have done it. According to a report in the Los Angeles Times about the discovery of Parsons' body in the desert, an LAPD police sergeant was asked if the circumstances appeared "ritualistic," and he replied, "It kind of looks like it." (The news of Parsons' death in the world of music was eclipsed the next day, when singer Jim Croce was killed in a plane crash.)

Kaufman and Martin were arrested after witnesses at the airport and Joshua Tree identified them from photos. They appeared in West L.A. Municipal Court on Nov. 5, 1973 -- which would have been Parsons' 27th birthday. Since there was no law against stealing a corpse, they were charged with grand theft for stealing the coffin, fined $300, and ordered to pay $708 in restitution for damage to the coffin.

The site of the attempted cremation in Joshua Tree was marked by a small concrete slab, which attracted fans who would camp at the site and scrawl graffiti on the nearby rocks. On the slab, someone wrote "Safe at Home" -- the title of the album released by Parsons' International Submarine Band in 1968.

Since the cremation site was attracting so many unruly visitors to Joshua Tree National Park, the U.S. Park Service decided to have the concrete slab removed, and it was brought to the Joshua Tree Inn, where is rests in an inside courtyard, just outside of Room 8. After the attempted cremation, Parsons' remaining remains were eventually shipped back to Louisiana, where he's buried in the Garden of Memories, in Metairie, just outside of New Orleans.

Bob Parsons' attempt to inherit his stepson's estate was rejected by the court, and he died about a year later. Instead, the money went to his estranged wife, Gretchen; his daughter, Polly; his sister, Avis; and his half-sister, Diane. Parsons' last album, "Grievous Angel," was released in January 1974.

A slightly fictionalized account of the incident is the basis for the film, "Grand Theft Parsons" (2003), which starred Johnny Knoxville as Phil Kaufman. Kaufman was one of the associate producers on the film.

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