Monday, December 4, 2023

The Bird that sang at a Funeral

Luther York was a retired journalist from Pall Mall community of Fentress County, Tennessee who lived in the Sunnybrook community of Wayne County, Kentucky. For years, he wrote a column for the Wayne County Outlook and several other newspapers. In 1972, when the editor of the Everglades Observer in Pahokee, Florida wrote a story about birds that squatted in the trees in front of the Observer office, York responded with a story of his own.

"This is for the birds," he wrote. "There are birds and there are birds. The little brown birds that so pestered the editor in Florida are schooled In the art of creating a nuis­ance. They are experts at it. But not so for the little nuthatch," which was the subject of the story he published in the Outlook two weeks later on Nov. 30th.

In reality, the story was one that had been passed down by York's wife's great-grandfather, the reverend Johnathan Bertram. It was a story about a little bird that sang a mournful funeral dirge, or lament, over the coffin of a dearly departed.

The story began as Rev. Bertram and a few others were working across from the Pinnacle in Clinton County at a place called, believe it or not, Possum Kingdom. There's a name for you. In all the years, there was only one mention of Possum Kingdom in the Outlook. It was on March 5, 1908, when the writer of the news from Powersburg said "Jason Coleman of the Possum Kingdom has moved to W. H. Denney's farm at Denney Hollow."

Everything was going good for the men working until one of them fell ill and died within a few minutes. "Dying in a place like Possum Kingdom can present problems," Bertram said. "There's no way to get into the place nor out of it except to walk or ride a surefooted horse or mule."

So, how were they to bring the man to the cemetery at Sunnybrook? After a while it became clear that there was only one solution. They would, have to carry the man out. This meant building a casket and then carrying it up the western face of the Pin­nacle and down the eastern side.

Well, it was no easy task, but it was accomplished. When the pallbearers had crossed the Pinnacle and finally reached the cemetery, the crew that was digging the grave had not yet finished it. So, the pallbearers just deposited their burden on the ground under the spreading limbs of a beech tree and waited there until the grave was done.

Unbeknownst to them the funeral service was about to begin, because suddenly a little nuthatch bird flew down and alighted on the lowest limb, just above the casket. When someone tried to shoo him away, he burst into song. When the song was finished, the nuthatch flew away and the grave, by then, was finished. The remains of the departed were lowered to their final resting place. It was perhaps the only funeral service for a man ever conducted by a bird.

Bro. Johnathan Bertram (1823-94) was the son of William and Nancy Stinson Bertram. He preached at Pleasant Hill and Taylor's Grove. He and his wife, Pharaba, had several children. Nearly all of them lived around Sunnybrook. Luther York co-authored the "Bertram Book," a collection of annotated pictures of Bertram residents of Wayne County and their descendants. The book was first published about 1958 and re-released in 2010 by the Wayne County Kentucky History Museum. Luther's wife, Georgia, had been the associate publisher of the "Upper Cumberland Times" prior to her death in 1994. Luther died in Florida in 1978. He and Georgia are buried at Wolf River Cemetery.

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