HENDERSONVILLE, Tenn. — Lauded as a poet, a scholar and a world-famous music icon, as well as a loving husband and father, Johnny Cash was remembered in a funeral service on Monday (Sept. 15) that was marked by tears and laughter, story and song. And he will remain the Man in Black throughout the ages — he was buried in a black coffin.
In the same First Baptist Church of Hendersonville, where his wife June Carter Cash was eulogized just four months ago, Cash’s friends and family recalled him — in the words of Kris Kristofferson’s “The Pilgrim: Chapter 33” — as “a poet, as a picker … a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction/taking every wrong direction on his lonely way back home.”
Fellow Highwayman and longtime friend Kristofferson sang his own composition “A Moment of Forever” in honor of Cash. “Johnny was a contradiction,” he said. “He was a deeply spiritual man who was the champion of the voiceless and the downtrodden. He was also something of a holy terror. He was a dark and dangerous force of nature that also stood for mercy and justice for his fellow human beings. He evolved into a patriarchal figure that hid the wild boy in him. Johnny represented the best of America, and we’re not going to see the likes of him again.”
Cash was eulogized by the Rev. Franklin Graham — the son of Cash’s close friend, Dr. Billy Graham — as “a friend to many of us in many walks of life.” Quoting from the 23rd Psalm, Graham evoked applause when he pointed to Cash’s body lying in state in the open coffin at the front of the church. “The Lord restored his soul,” Graham said. “He isn’t in there — he is not there. He’s more alive today than he ever was in his life. He’s in heaven.”
Former Vice President Al Gore, who knew Cash but said he wouldn’t claim to being a close friend, said that he felt he could “speak for the millions who felt like they knew Johnny Cash.” Gore drew laughter when he said that he was “not a singer or a preacher. I’m just a recovering politician. I used to be the next president of the United States of America. If it had been up to Johnny Cash, I would have been the next president of the United States of America.” Cash, Gore said, was able to empathize and feel the suffering of the underclass and identify with prisoners so effectively because Cash “had come to understand that there is a prison within, and he lived in that prison. He found a way out, but he was a recidivist, a repeat offender. He came to understand through the healing love of time and his family that he could explore the truth within him and reach out to his savior and break loose of those walls.”
Cash’s longtime manager Lou Robin recalled Cash as “the most dynamic person I have met.” Fellow Sun Records alumnus and songwriter producer Cowboy Jack Clement read a poem he had written for Cash, titled “My Friend, the Famous Person.” Clement said, “What I remember best is all the fun we had together.” Former Cash son-in-law Rodney Crowell said, “Every soul today is coming to grips with the idea of living in a world without Johnny Cash.”
Cash’s daughter Rosanne, who was formerly married to Crowell, had recorded the prophetic duet “September When It Comes” with her father on her current album. She grew emotional in describing what the loss means to her and the family. “He was not famous when he was teaching us to fish or to water-ski,” she said. “He was not an icon when he told us how proud he was of us. He never raised his voice and he never lectured. He respected us as much as we respected him. He was a Baptist with the soul of a mystic, a poet who worked in the dirt. He was the stuff of dreams and the living cornerstone of our lives. I can live with the idea of a world without the icon Johnny Cash, because there will never be a world without him. I cannot, however, imagine a world without Daddy.”
Cash’s sister Reba, in evoking the close relationship of Johnny and June, said, “June was the flower. Johnny was the vase and the water that held it up.” His stepdaughter Carlene Carter said, “He was my father by soul. We Carters became Cashes when the Cashes became Carters. I’m glad June and Johnny are together in heaven. She’s got cheesecake in one hand and a charge card in the other, and he’s now an Indian.”
Numerous film clips of highlights of Cash’s life and career also enabled Cash to sing some of his favorite gospel songs — such as “Just As I Am” — at his own funeral. A letter was read from the prime minister of Jamaica, where the Cashes maintained their second home for decades. Prime Minister PJ Patterson thanked Johnny and June for all they had done for Jamaica, including funding churches and schools there.
Before the closing benediction, some two dozen Carter and Cash family members gathered onstage to sing the hymn “Angel Band,” and they were joined by the congregation.
Other songs were offered by Sheryl Crow and Emmylou Harris. The Fisk Jubilee Singers sang the opening and closing hymns. Artists attending the service, which was closed to the general public, included Merle Kilgore, Dwight Yoakam, Marty Stuart, Connie Smith, the Statler Brothers, the Oak Ridge Boys, Randy Scruggs, Cash’s first drummer W.S. Holland, Trick Pony, John Mellencamp, Kid Rock, Hank Williams Jr., Ricky Skaggs, the Whites, Janette Carter, Dean Miller, Norman Blake, Earl Scruggs, Barbara Mandrell, George Jones, Vince Gill, Amy Grant, Ronnie Dunn, Larry Gatlin, Billy Walker, Donnie Fritts and actress Jane Seymour. Details of a public memorial are expected to be released soon.
The back of the funeral’s program was devoted to a song/poem by Cash, titled “Meet Me in Heaven.” It was inspired by that same inscription, which was chiseled into the tombstone of Cash’s older brother, Jack, whose death at an early age had a major impact on Cash’s life and work. It reads, in part: “At the end of the journey, when our last song is sung/Will you meet me in Heaven someday.”