In earlier times, the people of the Southern Highlands tended to regard death as a highly significant event.
Nineteenth century eulogies were heartfelt, sentimental and lengthy. Back then, newspapers devoted columns to comments from friends of the deceased, death-bed statements and poetic fanfares. Ah, but the marvels of communication – radio, movies, the daily papers – quickly brought an awareness of just how prosaic death really is.
The passing of a retired minister, an event once announced by tolling bells, funeral pageantry, memorial services and black-bordered eulogies has ceased to be a feature of daily newspapers. Thanks to our modern media that constantly broadcasts news of disasters, wars and famine, the single instance of a notable person is reduced to a millet seed dropping into the ponderous mills of death. Each hour, thousands are sped on their way.
But there was a time when the final leave-taking of “the great and near great,” was surrounded with portents and omens. Take the story of the Belled Buzzard, for example.
Early historians called him “the winged harbinger of death.” He usually came at twilight, his great funeral wings slowly rising and falling as he crossed farmlands and forests. And of course, the bell that hung from the messenger’s neck was tolling: Dong. Dong. Dong.
The reverberations of each note fade to silence before the next note is born. According to the old stories in Buncombe, Haywood and Jackson counties, families would rush into the yard to watch the buzzard fly unerringly to its destination – the home of a retired statesman, a general or a judge. Sorrowing relatives who had gathered around the death-bed would hear it approaching. Dong. Dong.
Usually the dying heard it too. Old stories relate of how stricken patriarchs raised their heads ... “Ah, he has come.”
The buzzard did not come for everyone. There are no stories about the aerial bell tolling for children, mothers dying of childbed fever or farmers struck down by accident or disease. The fateful bird comes only for those who have aspired to greatness and achieved it. Robert Henry, a noted North Carolina statesman who fought at Kings Mountain was such a man. He heard the bell in the mountain fastness of Clay County. According to an old family story, Henry heard the bell three times: one for each of his two capable and brilliant sons and once for himself.
During the first quarter of the 20th century, there were numerous reported sightings in North Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia. On March 8, 1924, two Georgia hunters were startled by the tolling of the bell and turned to see the buzzard, which was flying very close to the ground. The hunters informed several newspapers that carried articles with such captions as “Belled Buzzard Back in Worth County.”
The last recorded sighting of Death’s messenger in Western North Carolina was on a Friday evening in Leicester – Aug. 13, 1926.
The witness, a farmer named Ed Rhymer was quoted as saying, “At first, I thought that my cows was in the corn again.”
Rhymer went out to take a look and saw the great bird flying slowly up the valley. Rhymer said he listened to the fading bell and wondered about it destination. Several days later, another man, Eugene Sluder, in nearby Newfound said he saw the Belled Buzzard flying point in a formation of four. The buzzards were “heading west,” he said, “but only the leader was belled.”
Migrating? Possibly. Electric power lines were spreading throughout WNC and in many places, the night had been turned to day. Creatures of the night shun the light. What distant sanctuary could grant safe harbor to an old-fashioned bird who believed in death’s amenities? Was he seeking a place where the final leave-taking was observed with pomp, solemnity and ceremony?
Several years ago, a young man in an isolated rural of Arkansas inadvertently captured a buzzard that had become trapped in an old tree stump. Remembering stories that his grandmother had told him about the belled buzzard, the young man tied a cow bell around the old bird’s neck and released it. During the next week, several adjoining counties reported sightings: “He is back!” they said as the buzzard roosted on barns, church steeples and the roof of a nursing home. A retired politician called law enforcement officers. “He is in a stand of locust behind my house,” he said. “I know we don’t believe in such stuff anymore, but that bell is making me nervous.”
Now that is gratifying.