These equines—dear, departed—are the stuff of Southern tales.
Illustration by Gary Hovland
In July 2015, a man tied his mule in a cemetery just east of Bedford. Next day the mule was dead. Had it been a horse, the man would have been brought up on charges, but since it was only a mule, well, what do you think Hee Haw means? No respect, these mules get.
The Bedford Bulletin took a tone. When the man learned that “his muleship had shaken off his mortal coil,” he figured ’twas divine providence that his “beast of burden” had passed over in a cemetery, threw a pinch of dirt over him and split.
The mule soon made himself “painfully manifest to people living nearby,” and one complained to James Otey, graveyard manager, demanding that the carcass be taken away post haste. Otey sent word to Wesley Calloway, gravedigger, to tell the owner to ditch the deceased before it was “too late to handle it with safety.” Calloway counseled first talking to Chairman W.H. Brown. Sensing possible profit, Brown said the rate for a grave was one dollar, “mules not barred,” so long as they were “planted deep enough to keep the hoofs from showing.” The “iron wheel was cheerfully paid,” and deeper went the departed. But Otey didn’t cotton to this half-assed solution and told Brown to give back the silver dollar and have the owner remove the mule. The owner refused, saying the deal had been legit, so Brown did it, at his own expense.
What a heartbreaking tale of carping, greed and mule-dissing. There’s a novel here. A novel quintessentially Southren. A whole branch of criticism is founded on the ubiquity of dead mules in Southern literature, but Virginia appears sorely lacking in the genre. We do find a connection in Faulkner, writer-in-residence at UVA in 1957 and 1958. He had a picture of a mule in his office. Author Rick Bragg says so. In a column for Southern Living, Bragg conjures a literary version of rock-’n’-roll heaven brimming with Southern writers guffawing about dead mules, and as the roll is called up yonder, everybody from Truman Capote to Zora Neale Hurston antes up with a dead mule mention. He quotes a 2000 article in Southern Cultures by Jerry Leath Mills, a former prof at UNC-Chapel Hill (where there is a bar called the Dead Mule Club): “My survey of around 30 prominent 20th-century Southern authors has led me to conclude, without fear of refutation, that there is indeed a single, simple, litmuslike test for the quality of Southernness in literature ... whose answer may be taken as definitive, delimiting and final.” Is there a dead mule in it?
“What say we throw off the narrative/imperative this once and let the damned mule/live,” suggests Gregory Donovan, English professor at VCU, in his poem, “Is There a Dead Mule in It?” published in 2009 in literary journal storySouth. The title alludes to Mills’ litmus test, and the poem resounds with vital and charging mules, quite Southern, but very much alive.
Nice try. It’s dead mules what bear the goth, and certainly the humor. For a preacher who found a dead mule in his churchyard, final arrangements were even harder to plan than for our unnamed Bedford muleteer, eventually leading the reverend to the mayor, a difficult man. The mayor started in at once. “Why call me? Isn’t it your job to bury the dead?” The preacher paused, asking for guidance in phrasing his response. “Yes, Mayor,” said he. “It is my job to bury the dead, but I always like to notify the next of kin first.”