I went to bed on May 21st with no intentions of going to visit Sun Ra’s grave in Elmwood Cemetery the next morning, but shortly after waking, I felt myself compelled to seek out the final resting place of Birmingham’s greatest contribution to jazz on his hundredth birthday. I’d only ever visited two other famous people’s graves: Bear Bryant and Hank Williams, two other titans of Alabama culture. I drove out to Elmwood seeking Block 25, where I could do whatever it was I’d come to do. I didn’t really know what I had it mind, but it seemed like the thing to do. Finding his humble, flat grave marker (there is no elevated headstone) would’ve been nearly impossible to find on my own and I considered stopping to ask for directions from the cemetery office, though I doubt that actually would’ve been very much help either given the enormity of the cemetery and the low key headstone. I found good directions and a few photo indicators of where to go on findagrave.com. Perhaps not the most tasteful of URLs, but it’s one that certainly gets the point across and helps do what it advertises quite well.
It was early, around 9:00 a.m. or so when I made it out there and there was no one else around like the times I visited the graves of Bear Bryant and Hank Williams. There wasn’t a lot of fanfare for a music legend on such a momentous anniversary: a fake flower was inserted into the ground and various trinkets were left on the headstone as a thank you or acknowledgement of visitors’ presence: a ring, a few coins, and the most peculiar item…a severely faded CD of the Grateful Dead’s Wake of the Flood. I stood there for a few minutes looking around and enjoying the peculiar, but peaceful quietness and serenity of the cemetery on what was a gorgeous morning. I fished around in my pocket for a coin and placed it on the headstone with the others. I did it as much for those that might come after me to know that others still cherish this legend as much as I did it for Sun Ra himself. Funerals, as they say, are for the living and I suppose in this day and age, leaving a trinket or coin is for the living as much as it is for the dead. After placing the coin down I stood around a few moments longer and just kind of said a thank you to him and then snapped a picture of the headstone. I thought about his music and all of the musicians I love that he’s inspired and realized that my musical world (and my life for that matter) would’ve been very different had he not made such a great impression on so many brilliant minds along the way.
You may not be a Sun Ra fan or even a jazz fan, but there’s a good chance the ripples from the boulder he dropped in the pond made their way to some musician you love no matter the genre. George Clinton has constantly cited his influence, Kid Congo (The Cramps, The Gun Club, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds) is a fan, Ty Segall Band and Thee Oh Sees made the pilgrimage to his grave the last time they played here, and countless others like John Medeski and Trey Anastasio are fans as well. Sun Ra was a gift to the world, and I hope Birminghamians are proud he was from here.