The film “Get Low,” starring Robert Duvall, Bill Murray and Sissy Spacek, which debuted in theaters around the U.S. in the summer of 2010, is based on a true story that provides a fascinating look at an early use of newspaper publicity.
Felix “Bush” Breazeale was a bachelor in Tennessee who decided he wanted to have a funeral party while he was still alive, so he could enjoy it. In the film, his funeral becomes a time for Felix to tell the truth about a long-held secret, a bit of dramatic embroidery.
In the real life story, related at the web site GetLowTheFilm.com, the funeral plan was first reported by the Roane County Banner, and the story was picked up by the Associated Press and United Press wire services and LIFE magazine.
When the event was held on June 26, 1938, the crowd was estimated at eight to twelve thousand people. Cars from 14 states were backed up two miles to the two Cave Creek Baptist Churches (built side to side – one Primitive, the other Missionary) where the event was held. An enterprising John Cook charged 25 cents per car to park in his neighboring field, and he was reported to have made $300. Vendors of soft drinks and hot dogs did a flourishing business. Flowers were sent from Knoxville and Chatanooga.
The funeral cortege was late due to traffic along the road. The Hawkins Mortuary hearse arrived with Bush in the front seat and a home-made walnut coffin in the back of the vehicle. People held their children high to get a glimpse, and 10 people fainted from the heat and excitement. Reporters and cameramen from the newspapers for Knoxville and Chattanooga covered the event.
The Rev. Charles E. Jackson from Paris, IL, delivered the funeral sermon. He said, “This service is not a bad idea. Much good should come from a service divested of the usual tears and heartaches. It gives us an opportunity to take thought of tomorrow and anticipate the great adventure called death. Mr. Breazeale and I never intended anything but that this should be a solemn service.”
After the formal program, Bush shook hands with a thousand or more friends and well-wishers and autographed memorial programs with an “X” for his signature. He said, “This will be my only funeral. It was the finest sermon that I ever heard, and when I die there won’t be another one.” Reminds me of the living memorial service for E.B. Sugars, related in another post on this blog.
He was Roane County, Tennessee’s greatest celebrity. On July 4, 1938, Bush threw out the first pitch in the double header baseball game between Harriman and Loudon (local Tennessee teams).
Bush was featured in Robert Ripley’s syndicated column, and he took Bush to New York City for a radio interview – the 1938 equivalent of being flown to the Big Apple to be interviewed on the TODAY Show. Of his trip to New York, Bush said, “You know they were the finest folk and treated me wonderfully, but to be honest about it, their victuals wasn’t worth a dern.”
Felix “Bush” Breazeale was born on June 29, 1864, and he actually lived five years beyond his funeral party. He died on February 9, 1943 and although he had requested no other funeral, a small one was held when his body was buried in the cemetery on the hill above the two Cave Creek Baptist churches where his big funeral party was held.
A bachelor all his life, Bush said, “The one I wanted I couldn’t have, and the ones I could have, I didn’t want.” He lived with his parents until they both died, then lived with his nephew, Bert Breazeale. Bush had lived the life of a farmer and enjoyed fox hunting.
I’ve seen the film, and based on this actual history, I can tell you quite a few dramatic liberties have been taken with the story. Nonetheless, it is a great film, and it’s theme of funeral planning before you die is a vital message for our time.
Check out the trailer for the film: