I love cemeteries so much that wherever I travel I try to visit as many as I can find. I should qualify that I love cemeteries having what I call character. I like to see headstones, plants and decoration that show how the living feel about their dead. Cemeteries featuring endless rows of flush to the ground headstones spiked with a forest of plastic flower bouquets do not interest me in the least.
Today my love of cemeteries finds us flying around turns on a twisty up and down Alabama country road in search of a cemetery—the only burial ground dedicated exclusively to Coon Dogs. I’ve written before about what has become our annual pilgrimage to Red Bay Alabama. Red Bay is where we make annual RV repairs, and I believe this is our 4th year going. We’d heard about a cemetery for Coon Dogs about 10 miles from Red Bay and this year I was determined to visit.
Before you read any further, know that I am about to describe aspects of the blood sport of hunting and using hunting dogs to track and capture animals. It’s impossible to write about Coon Dogs without also talking about hunting. If this is a subject that you find troubling or offensive, please enjoy a different post on my blog.
Depending on who you talk to, the names Coon Hound, Coon Dog, coonhound and coon dog are used interchangeably for the breed, though I noticed that hunters seem more likely to use Coon Dog. I am following suit with Coon Dog for the rest of this post, unless it’s an original quote. The AKC uses American English Coonhound, which is a nod to the dog’s heritage. A Coon Dog is a descendant of the English fox hounds that were brought to early America for hunting. Early hunters realized that fox hounds weren’t suited to hunting the game they were after (raccoons) and set about developing the breed to hunt animals that did not go to ground when being chased, as do foxes. Coon Dogs that chase their prey, “singing out,” a poetic euphemism for howling like crazy the whole time, drive them up a tree for the hunters and remain there to keep the raccoon from escaping until the hunter arrives. I don’t know a lot of Coon Dog owners, but I’ve met enough hunters in the five years we’ve been visiting Alabama to get an idea of what they might be like. I was talking to just such a friend, Chris. He generally hunts deer. I told him about our trip to the graveyard. He told me about the time his father took him to the graveyard with a friend who had a dog buried there. “No one hunts raccoons much anymore,” said Chris. “There was a time when you could pick up a little extra money with raccoon pelts, but imports are a lot cheaper, so no one bothers with the hunters’ pelts.” I never heard Chris or any other hunter rave about raccoon meat, so it’s likely not an incentive for hunting. Me being the curious type I looked up “cooking a raccoon” on the internet, and with hunting, skinning, butchering and cooking it seemed like a lot of work that not many would take on. I’ll spare you the really gory details, but I do have a recipe, just in case you want to know. There is an official hunting season for raccoon just as with other game animals. Off season hunters follow a “catch and release” program, which is allowed year round, and is done to train the dogs, keeping them fit and sharp for competition or hunting. The enjoyment for most modern Coon Dog fans is in seeing their dogs do what they love to do, rather than getting a kill. There are lots of national competitions for Coon Dogs in the United States, where dogs get to demonstrate their skill in tracking and treeing their prey.
So deep is the hunter’s affection for these dogs that a cemetery exclusively for Coon Dogs came into being. The Key Underwood Coon Dog Memorial Graveyard is located in Colbert County Alabama. It was named in honor of Mr. Key Underwood, who buried his dog Troop there in 1937. The site of the cemetery was originally a hunting camp that was a favorite place for Underwood and Troop. Underwood made Troop a headstone out of an old chimney stone. Other hunters started burying their dogs alongside Troop, and eventually the informal burial sites became an official graveyard. There are hundreds of dogs buried there, and every Labor Day there is a festival to commemorate the graveyard, and to celebrate the history of the Coon Dogs buried there.
We found the entrance to the graveyard and drove into the parking area. The property is set on a hill surrounded by forest—prime coon hunting area I imagine. There are two memorials at the entrance; they are similar sculptures depicting dogs treeing a raccoon. The original one, erected in the 1960s is damaged, but a new and larger replica was erected. We toured the graveyard. Headstones varied from humble wooden markers to professionally carved granite headstones. I found Troop’s grave, the humble chimney stone hand carved by his owner. We spent a good hour looking at the graves. Some of the markers were more informational; the dog’s pedigree, date of birth/death, accomplishments and owner. Other graves were deeply touching and expressed a great love for the canine buried there.
The Coon Dog Graveyard criteria for burial is pretty straightforward according to the website:
- The owner must claim their pet is an authentic coon dog.
- A witness must declare the deceased is a coon dog.
- A member of the Key Underwood Coon Dog Memorial Graveyard, Inc. must be allowed to view the coonhound and declare it as such.
I like the code of honor implicit in the rules. No paperwork or genetic testing required. It’s solely on the word of the owner, a witness and a knowledgeable third party to declare a dog genuine.
We were moved by the cemetery, with the loving tributes to the dogs and the tender care lavished on the graves. I imagined gruff hunters coming to bury their dogs in this quiet place, grieving over the loss of a good companion. I know how I felt when I lost a beloved dog. It’s a different kind of sadness that dog owners understand all too well.
Enjoy the slideshow, and the Coon Dog Eulogy written by William and Bradley Ramsey that appears on the Graveyard website. The title of this post is taken from a line of their poem. Here also are a few links.
Coon Dog Memorial Graveyard Link to the official website
Coon Dog Graveyard Video From Alabama Public Television
American English Coon Hound All the American Kennel Club has to say about the Coon Dog
Coon Dog Hunting The ins and outs of hunting with a Coon Dog.
Written by William W. Ramsey Introduction by Bradley W. Ramsey
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. When the box was lowered into the ground one of the men spoke the following.
Let not your hearts be troubled, for in his master’s swamp are many den trees
If it were not so, I would have told you.
He has gone to prepare a place for you and where he has gone Ole Red will go also.
Dogs, they say, do not have souls.
They only have hide and bones.
But I believe there is a coon dog heaven and Red is gone were the good coon dogs go.
Anybody that coon hunts has to believe in God.
If you have known the music of coon hounds on a trail
and heard the excitement in their voices when they strike,
and seen their eagerness and determination when they tree,
if you have seen their courage and bravery
in a tough fight with an old boar coon,
if you have heard their anguished cries and howls,
if you have seen the ugly gashes
and bleeding wounds
and witnessed their resolve to never quit,
you know there has to be a God to make an animal like that.
And a God that that would make a coon dog won’t forget him when he is gone.
There is a coon dog heaven and Ole Red is there.
And every night he runs
and the den trees are there in the old swamp
and the old hunter’s moon hangs low in the west
and the coons don’t go up no slick barked trees
and the carbide don’t run out
and there ain’t no bull nettle and saw briars
and old master always knocks the coon out
and lets Ole Red grab him and give him a good shake;
and then he gets a pat on the head
and climbs back into the kennel in the back of the pick-up truck
and goes home and sleeps all day.
‘Cause 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.
From Coon Dog Memorial Graveyard website.