Barney Head was buried in casket handmade by those he loved most
A true Ozark County native, Barney Head was known for his love of the outdoors, his family and his daughter, Kiya Belle. So it was only fitting that he was laid to rest in a casket as unique as he was – built by the people who loved him most, made from reclaimed Ozark County barnwood adorned with antlers he found while shed hunting with his son-in-law Wyatt Grisham and the skull of the last deer he ever killed.
“It was the most beautiful casket I’ve ever seen and worth more than money could ever buy,” Kiya said after the funeral.
A ‘bond that can’t be shook’
Kiya’s earliest years were spent living with her mother, her mother’s husband and her older sister, Miya, but she says she always had a strong relationship with her dad.
“I couldn’t wait to see my dad on the weekends when it was his turn to have me,” she said. “We’d spend a lot of our time traveling the road to different construction sites on his scheduled weekends or when I had time off from school.”
Kiya said she loved spending time with Barney. Then, when she was in the third grade, her life changed drastically.
“Mom changed her priorities to being a drug addict, and I was taken away from her. That’s when my dad took it to court to get full custody of me,” Kiya told the Times.
During the stressful process, life threw another curveball when Miya died in a vehicle accident.
Barney continued to fight for custody of Kiya, and after everything was finally settled in court, he was awarded full custody.
“And then it just me and Dad. When he was out working construction on the road, I would stay with family and friends,” Kiya said. “But I looked forward to when he came home. We always found something to do. Fishing, hunting, going to my softball games, basketball games, yard sales, thumb wars, tickling and pestering each other, watching the Cardinals play, telling me stories about his younger days,” Kiya said.
“Whatever she wanted to do, it didn’t matter, he’d do it,” said Kiya’s husband, Wyatt.
“Basically, he did. We’d go horseback riding. He’d always buy me horses. He bought me a baby calf one time when I was little as a surprise because he knew I’d love it,” she said.
“We did a lot of traveling because it was our favorite thing to do,” Kiya said. “Sometimes he’d just be driving down the road, and I’d be in the passenger seat, and he’d just scream out of nowhere and slam on the brakes. It’d scare me half to death, and he’d laugh and laugh.”
Kiya said when she was little she made Barney stop to pick up hitchhikers along the way on their trips. “Then one time, we picked one up, and there were bugs crawling in his hair,” Kiya said. “That was the last time we ever picked up a hitchhiker, and to this day we would’ve still been talking about it.”
Barney and Kiya, lovingly called “Sissy Belle,” grew closer with each passing year.
Even as she grew from being a young girl to an adolescent to, now, an adult, she and Barney were inseparable.
“Every morning we would call each other. No matter what. Always. And he would say, ‘Be good, do good,’ before we hung up the phone,” Kiya said. “I can’t even put into words the kind of man he was. He was just indescribable. He was such a big supporter. He’d tell me, ‘If you can read, you can do anything,’ and he’d encourage me to tackle my dreams by telling me, ‘Tomorrow never comes.’
“There are no words to explain the kind of relationship we had for each other,” Kiya said. “But I’ll tell you, the bond was something that will never be shook.”
Another bond was just as strong, the friendship between Barney and his longtime friend and now son-in-law, Wyatt.
Although Kiya and Wyatt are now known for their own loving relationship, the pair say it was actually Wyatt and Barney who became close first.
“I was at a ballgame one time, and I sat by him,” Wyatt said. “We started talking, and that was the start of it. We had a lot in common, so we started doing things together – fishing and hunting and different things.”
“And at the time, me and Wyatt hated each other,” Kiya said. “Well, maybe not hated each other, but we strongly disliked each other. We did not get along in high school. Everyone told us we’d end up together, but neither one of us thought there was any way that would happen.”
Destiny finally took its course about six years ago, when Wyatt and Kiya went on their first date. They fell in love, and on June 30, 2018, Barney walked his beloved daughter down the aisle to marry his good friend Wyatt.
An unexpected turn of events
In recent years Barney’s back pain and related issues grew so intense that he was unable to walk without a walker or cane, limiting his ability to do the things he loved most with Kiya and Wyatt.
A Sept. 13 back surgery performed by Dr. Lucas Bradley of the Baxter Regional Medical Center Neurosurgery & Spine Clinic in Mountain Home, Arkansas, was done to correct some problems Barney had sustained in a 2014 back surgery by a different surgeon.
“Dr. Bradley said the first back surgeon really messed him up. He had screwed through two of his nerves in his back, and scar tissue had built up. It was a mess,” she said. “So he was going in to fix all that. He took out the old screws and rods and put new ones in.”
The day after surgery, Barney awoke feeling much better.
“He actually got up and walked. It was like two different people. Dr. Bradley changed his life that day, walking-wise. It was such a great thing – for a little bit,” Kiya said.
Barney was discharged the following Monday, three days after the surgery.
“He was living with us so we could take care of him. So he came home. The next day, Tuesday, he said he couldn’t breathe… couldn’t catch his breath. He was hacking up tons of blood and mucus and stuff. I called 911, and the ambulance came and took him to Baxter,” Kiya said
Barney was admitted into the Baxter Regional Medical Center’s intensive care unit, where he was diagnosed with pneumonia. Three days later, he was transferred to a step-down unit, where he spent another nearly two weeks. After a total of 14 days in the hospital, he was discharged.
The next day, he was vomiting blood again.
“He was Air Evaced to Mercy [Hospital] in Springfield, and they said he had pneumonia again. They said it was really severe,” Kiya said.
“While he was there, I got a call from him. He was crying, I mean bawling his eyes out. I kept trying to figure out what was wrong, but I couldn’t understand him. I thought I was going to have to hang up and call his nurse to see what had happened, but right before I did I finally heard him. He wanted to talk to Wyatt,” Kiya said. “Wyatt had to work that night, but he called in, and when we got to the hospital, Dad saw Wyatt and put his arms out wide for a hug. Then he told Wyatt, ‘I need you to take care of my girl – and promise you will.’”
Barney’s condition worsened over the next couple of days, and his oxygen level dropped to a dangerously low level. He was placed on life support when his lungs became unable to produce enough oxygen to sustain his body. A wide range of tests were performed. In the process, Barney’s doctor took a culture from his lung that showed it wasn’t actually pneumonia that was causing Barney’s symptoms.
“They said it was either a rare lung disease or cancer,” Kiya said. “Daddy was highly sedated and on full life support at that time. They told me I needed to make the decision as to whether they should put him under and do a lung biopsy or not.”
The doctor told Kiya that Barney’s body was in a very weak state, and it was very likely that he would die during surgery if they attempted the biopsy; however, she said it was also likely he would die without treatment.
“So, basically, there was no good option. I didn’t want to have to make that decision for him. So I asked if they could pull him out of sedation enough to ask him what he wanted to do,” Kiya said.
The medical staff agreed. Barney regained enough consciousness for the doctor to explain his situation and give him the choice.
“He still couldn’t speak, but he shook his head no,” Kiya said. “He didn’t want to do the biopsy.”
Knowing the outlook was grim, Kiya called into work and told them she was going to stay with her dad.
“I curled up in his hospital bed and stayed with him all day until he died. I was there right beside him,” she said.
A family effort
After Barney died on Wednesday, Oct. 9, Kiya knew she did not want to take the traditional route of having a funeral home embalm her father’s body, place it in a manufactured coffin and concrete burial vault to be placed in the ground.
“We’d talked about it in the past, and we both felt the same way. We didn’t want to be put in something that would keep us from going back to the earth,” Kiya said. “So, when I realized we needed to have a casket built, I looked at Wyatt and asked him what to do, and he told me he would take care of it. He called his dad, Ray, and Ray said, ‘Whatever she wants, I’ll do.’ Ray told Wyatt to tell my dad, ‘I’ll take care of Kiya like she was my own.’ When my dad heard that, tears started rolling down his face.”
Kiya called Gene Britt, Gainesville’s Clinkingbeard Funeral Home manager, to help with the arrangements for a natural burial.
“Gene has been great,” Wyatt said. “He really helped us out a lot to figure out what we needed to do.”
Gene explained to the family that the funeral home could use a refrigeration unit to preserve Barney’s body as opposed to embalming, but it could only be for a short time.
“Gene said we had to have the casket built by that Friday since he was not going to be embalmed,” Kiya said. “So we had to get it built fast.”
Kiya and the Grishams all met at Wyatt’s parents Ray and Missy’s shop the next day. The building crew included Kiya, Wyatt, Ray, Missy, Wyatt’s grandparents Larry and Sonja Grisham, Wyatt’s brother Lincoln Grisham and Lincoln’s son, 4-year-old Kaleb.
“We all did something to make it come together,” Kiya said. From drilling the holes, cutting the barn wood, screwing the structure together, the casket was built by the hands and hearts of those who loved Barney and still love Kiya.
“When we got the casket done, I wrote a letter to dad on the inside of it, and we filled it with his favorite pillows that he slept with and his two favorite quilts.”
And in that way, a true Ozarks native was buried in a true Ozarks way – accompanied by reminders of the things he enjoyed and surrounded by the love of the people he treasured.