DeathIn the late 1960s, Parsons became enamored with Joshua Tree National Monument (now Joshua Tree National Park) in southeastern California. After splitting from Burrell, Parsons would frequently spend his weekends in the area with Margaret Fisher and Phil Kaufman. Before his tour was scheduled to commence in October 1973, Parsons decided to go on one more excursion. Accompanying him were Fisher, personal assistant Michael Martin, and Dale McElroy, Martin's girlfriend.
Less than two days after arriving, Parsons died on September 19, 1973, in Joshua Tree, California, at the age of 26 from an overdose of morphine and alcohol. According to Fisher in the 2005 biography Grievous Angel: An Intimate Biography of Gram Parsons, the amount of morphine consumed by Parsons would be lethal to three regular users and thus he had likely overestimated his tolerance considering his experience with opiates. Fisher and McElroy were returned to Los Angeles by Kaufman, who dispersed the remnants of Parsons' stash in the desert.
Parsons' body disappeared from the Los Angeles International Airport where it was being readied to be shipped to Louisiana for burial. Prior to his death, Parsons stated that he wanted his body cremated at Joshua Tree and his ashes spread over Cap Rock, a prominent natural feature there; however, Parsons' stepfather arranged for a private ceremony back in New Orleans and neglected to invite any of his friends from the music industry. Two accounts claim that Bob Parsons stood to inherit Gram's share of his grandfather's estate if he could prove that Gram was a resident of Louisiana, explaining his eagerness to have him buried there.
To fulfill Parsons' funeral wishes, Kaufman and a friend stole his body from the airport and in a borrowed hearse drove it to Joshua Tree. Upon reaching the Cap Rock section of the park, they attempted to cremate Parsons' corpse by pouring five gallons of gasoline into the open coffin and throwing a lit match inside. What resulted was an enormous fireball. The police gave chase but, as one account puts it, "were encumbered by sobriety," and the men escaped. The two were arrested several days later. Since there was no law against stealing a dead body, they were only fined $750 for stealing the coffin and were not prosecuted for leaving 35 pounds (16 kg) of his charred remains in the desert. Parsons's body was eventually buried in Garden of Memories of Metairie, Louisiana.
Parsons' makeshift memorial in Joshua Tree, California
The site of Parsons' cremation was marked by a small concrete slab and was presided over by a large rock flake known to rock climbers as The Gram Parsons Memorial Hand Traverse. The slab has since been removed by the U.S. National Park Service, and relocated to the Joshua Tree Inn. There is no monument at Cap Rock noting Parsons' cremation at the site. Joshua Tree park guides are given the option to tell the story of Parsons' cremation during tours, but there is no mention of the act in official maps or brochures. Fans regularly assemble simple rock structures and writings on the rock, which the park service sand blasts to remove from time to time.