L.O. Bishop likes to tell of the time during a funeral when the pallbearers got distracted by a rabbit, dropped the casket, and set off in hot pursuit. It’s a tall tale, of course, but what do you expect at a festival held in the Key Underwood Coon Dog Memorial Graveyard? Each Labor Day, the cemetery hosts a celebration that includes music, dancing, food and a liar’s contest.
When there are pallbearers at this dog cemetery, maintained by the Tennessee Valley Coon Hunters Association and located 20 miles south of Tuscumbia in Colbert County, Alabama, they are of the human variety. But only canines certified as coon-hunting dogs may be buried there. The cemetery Web site at coondogcemetery.com includes eulogies and descriptions from mourners, including father and son William and Bradley Ramsey, whose Ole Red was buried in a full service.
“A group of solemn men, dressed in black mourning coats and hip boots, wearing carbide lamps on their heads stood beside a mound of soil
and a freshly dug hole. A hunting horn sounded and the bay of hounds filled the air. Four similarly dressed men walked slowly toward the gathered crowd, a small wooden box carried between them.”
The last lines of William’s eulogy memorialize the relationship between hunter and dog:
“…he knows in coon dog heaven he can hunt again when the sun goes down and the tree frogs holler. May the bones of Ole Red rest in peace, through the mercy of God and may the coon hunters light perpetually shine upon him.”
The cemetery has been featured in newspapers and magazines such as Southern Living, Field & Stream and Bassmaster, as well as on television shows such as Charles Kuralt’s On the Road. People walk into the Colbert County Tourism and Convention Bureau daily asking for directions, bureau executive director Susann Hamlin said. The cemetery has become so popular, she told us, that the bureau now sells the world’s only Official Coon Dog Memorial Cemetery T-shirt and camouflage baseball caps.
They feature images of the grave of Troop, the first dog buried at the site. Shirts and caps are $12 each, but discounts are available for large quantities. Proceeds help maintain the cemetery. The Tourism and Convention Bureau on U.S. 72 in Tuscumbia is open weekdays and opens Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the summer.
The cemetery is named for Key Underwood, who buried his dog, Troop, in the woods where they hunted together in 1937. In a 1985 interview, Underwood said he never intended the site to become a cemetery. But as other hunters needed a place to honor their loyal hunting dogs, the secluded site became a popular burial ground.
About 185 dogs have been buried at the site, with names such as Straight Talkin’ Tex, Fanney,
Preacher, Ranger, Hickory, Kate, Rusty, Queen, Loud, Doctor Doom, Beanblossum Bommer, Hardtime Wrangler and High Pocket.
And the site is tremendously popular. Groups of 20 or more can order a tour with watermelon and lemonade by calling the Tourism and Convention Center. No admission is charged for viewing the cemetery.
“We also have a package for river barge excursions,” Hamlin said. L.O. Bishop, a longtime supporter who runs a local barbecue supply business, said as many as 400 people may visit the cemetery during the Labor Day celebration. On other days, visitors come whenever the urge strikes.
“I have never been to the coon dog cemetery that I didn’t see people come in,” Hamlin said.
But whatever you do, don’t ask if you can bury your cat there. It’s dogs only, and only coon dogs. In fact, a member of the local coon hunters’ organization must be allowed to view the coonhound to ensure.
“We have people call and ask us if they can bury their pets there and we say, ‘No, this is not a pet cemetery,’” Hamlin said.