Remember the scene in the movie Sweet Home Alabama where they sit in the coon dog graveyard and mourn the death of their dog and the loss of their relationship? Did you think that was just another made-up, stereotypical insult to Alabamians? Well, friends, I have news for you. It’s real. It exists. And I’ve been there. Twice.
My first adventure at the Coon Dog Cemetery was on Christmas Day, 2008. JD and I went to eat lunch with his grandparents, and we found ourselves driving them around northwest Alabama, visiting their favorite places. We saw where Grandad was born, the house Grandmom grew up in, the cemetery where Grandad’s sister was buried, and the schools they had attended. And then, without warning, it happened. I found myself (on Christmas Day, in a dress and high heels) stepping out of the car and into the Coon Dog Cemetery.
We read the grave markers, and JD’s grandparents knew stories about some of the dogs. Grandad told us about family gatherings at the Cemetery when he was younger – where the men would “sand the creek” to catch fish and the women would bring large “wash pots” to cook them in. Apparently, in this family, the Coon Dog Cemetery was a sacred spot. As if to prove it, JD took me to see the tree where he and his cousins had carved their initials when they were kids.
Y’all, I’m not making this up.
When my parents, Piper, and I went to the Rattlesnake Saloon a few weeks ago, we realized that we were only a few miles from the Cemetery. How could we go home without stopping by and paying our respects? How could I let my parents miss out on this unique spot of Alabama history? How could I not introduce Piper to a place so dear to her family?
So, I found myself once again stepping out of the car (this time in jeans and Toms, thankfully) and into the Cemetery. I didn’t have JD’s grandparents with me to tell the stories, but I was fortunate enough to find a brochure. Let me share a few of the more interesting quotes and excerpts with you.
“In a small, grassy clearing, deep in the rich, thick wilderness of Freedom Hills, Key Underwood sadly buried his faithful coon dog, Troop. They had hunted together for more than 15 years. They had been close friends.”
Good old Troop’s grave is surrounded with flowers and other tokens of remembrance. He was the first dog buried at this site, and the most beloved.
” ‘When I buried Troop, I had no intention of establishing a coon dog cemetery,’ said Underwood. ‘I merely wanted to do something special for a special coon dog.’ “
More than 200 coon dogs from all over the United States are buried in the Cemetery now, and there are strict requirements to qualify for burial. The dog must be an authentic coon-hound with witnesses to verify its lineage and an inspection by a local coon hunter’s organization.
“A spokesman for the Tennessee Valley Coon Hunter’s Association summed it up this way: ‘A dog can’t run no deer, possum — nothing like that. He’s got to be a straight coon dog, and he’s got to be full hound. Couldn’t be a mixed up breed dog, a house dog.'”
Key Underwood, Troop’s owner and the Cemetery’s founder, when asked about allowing other breeds to be buried there, responded: “‘You must not know much about coon hunters and their dogs, if you think we would contaminate this burial place with poodles and lap dogs.'”
The graves of these authentic coon hounds are well-marked. Some with homemade markers:
If you think you’re up for a visit to the Coon Dog Cemetery, might I recommend going on Labor Day? Every year the Tennessee Valley Coon Hunter’s Association hosts a Labor Day celebration honoring the deceased dogs. You can celebrate by listening to music, eating barbecue, dancing, and witnessing the legendary ‘liar’s contest.” You might even see JD’s grandmom and grandad there — they’re regulars!