This story is so extraordinary that if it didn’t really happen, no one would believe it. It seems life truly is stranger than fiction. The story involves two men, a hearse, a dead rock star, five gallons of gasoline, and a promise.
Remember the influential country rock musician Gram Parsons? He played with Emmylou Harris, The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and The International Submarine Band. Parsons died in 1973 in a motel room near Joshua Tree National Monument from a morphine overdose at the age of 26.
The film Grand Theft Parsons (2003) is based on the true story of what happened to Parsons’ body after he died. The movie illustrates certain issues that can be helpful for estate planning attorneys to start conversations with their clients.
Prior to his death, Parsons stated that he wanted his body cremated at Joshua Tree and his ashes spread over Cap Rock, a prominent natural feature there. His road manager, Phil Kaufman, (who also managed Parsons’ drug and alcohol use as best he could) and Parsons had a pact. Whoever died first, the other would take the body to Joshua Tree and “set his spirit free,” that is, set the body on fire.
At the beginning of the film, Kaufman tries to obtain Parson’s body from the small, remote hospital near Joshua Tree. The nurse declines to give Kaufman the body, because he was neither a physician nor a close relative. He tries to steal the body from the hospital, unsuccessfully.
Parsons’ body goes to the Los Angeles International Airport for shipment to New Orleans for burial. Parsons’ stepfather arranged for a private ceremony, neglecting to invite any music industry friends.
In the film, Kaufman hires a hippie with a psychedelic hearse to retrieve the body from the airport and bribes the air cargo office clerk to obtain Parson’s body.
Once at Joshua Tree, Kaufman attempts to cremate Parsons by pouring five gallons of gasoline into the open coffin and throwing a lit cigarette inside – resulting in an enormous fireball. That part of the film stays pretty close to the true story.
The movie adds snarky ex-girlfriend Barbara Mansfield, who tries to cash in on Parson’s money and earthly possessions using a handwritten note on the back of a flyer advertisement. She says it’s his Will, but there is no notarization or anything that would make it official.
The note says: “To whom it may concern: I would like it to be known that it is my wish to leave Barbara Mansfield my assets and belongings in the event of my death. Signed, Gram Parsons.”
Kaufman tells her that’s not a Will. She says it’s a signed promise from Gram to leave her all of his things. Parsons was married to another woman at the time.
Using this note, she tries to obtain Parson’s guitar and music masters from Kaufman. She also tries to get money from the bank. The banker tells her they have rules, the piece of paper is invalid, and they would at least need a death certificate for her to prove that he is actually dead. She unsuccessfully tries to get a death certificate from the county registrar.
Outside of the questionable legality of setting a body on fire in a national monument, Grand Theft Parsons opens the door for attorneys to discuss the following points:
- In most states, a hand-written note does not make an acceptable Will, no matter how hard a desperate girlfriend insists it does. Do you as an estate attorney ever face this kind of situation? This is a chance to let your clients know what actually makes a legal Will valid.
- Hospitals will not release bodies to “close friends,” be they road managers or life partners without power-of-attorney proof. In fact, those who want to do their own home death care for a family member may have a difficult time getting a body released to next-of-kin.
- Bribing an air cargo clerk has got to be breaking some kind of law, but this was set in 1973, way before September 11 security enhancements at airports took effect. Only “Known Shippers” can now handle dead bodies when it comes to air cargo. You can’t just drive a psychedelic hearse up to the air cargo office anymore. Sigh.
By the way, in the true story, police chased Kaufman and his friend after setting the body on fire, but the pair got away. They were arrested several days later. Since there was no law against stealing a dead body, they were only fined $750 for stealing the coffin and were not prosecuted for leaving 35 pounds of Parsons’ charred remains in the desert.
Grand Theft Parsons is a fun film with a few life-and-death lessons sprinkled into the comedy. It can be rented on DVD through Netflix and purchased through Amazon.com. Rated PG-13 for drug references and some language.
Gail Rubin is the author of the award-winning book, A Good Goodbye: Funeral Planning for Those Who Don’t Plan to Die (http://AGoodGoodbye.com), and The Family Plot Blog, http://TheFamilyPlot.wordpress.com. She’s “knocking them dead” with her Funny Films to Start Serious Conversations talks.
Academy Guest Blogger
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