One last party for Eileen Carson Schatz

Eileen Carson Schatz always knew how to throw a party. The one she planned for Monday was one those fortunate enough to attend will talk about for years to come.

Eileen died last Wednesday. In her final days, her body ravaged by pancreatic cancer but her luminous spirit unflagging, Eileen taught two classes at Common Ground On The Hill’s music and arts camp in Westminster, MD, and attended a benefit concert on her behalf at the Birchmere Music Hall last Tuesday night. She also planned her funeral.

At what a funeral it was. For four hours, in the middle of a sweltering summer day, a few hundred friends and relatives sang, danced, clapped, laughed and, yes, shed a few tears. 

Eileen was a dancer, aptly called Cloggerina by her great friend and former roommate Elizabeth Melvin, who delivered the eulogy. She had one foot in old time music and another in bluegrass – husband Mark Schatz plays with Claire Lynch, Nickel Creek and others – and they all came together near Annapolis to say goodbye.

The music was eclectic and spectacular, from Shelley Ensor’s Gospel numbers before the main part of the service, to Greg Blake’s magnificent take on In The Garden, with Claire Lynch and Matthew Wingate joining on sublime harmonies. There was also a reunion of one iteration of the Claire Lynch Band – Lynch, Schatz, Wingate and Bryan McDowell – to perform Eileen’s Waltz, written for her by Schatz, with a lyrical assist from Lynch. A number of other top musicians – Bela Fleck, Tony Trischka, Jon Glik and more – were there to pay their respects.

The dress was as varied as the music. Eileen was known for colorful, sparkly and wild outfits, and there were plenty of those, along with Hawaiian shirts, suits and ties, shorts and t-shirts.

Greg Blake led the service, which he called “a celebration of a life that’s really hard to explain.”

Schatz opened his remarks by calling his wife “a complicated and extraordinary woman,” drawing knowing laughs from those who knew her well. “We had some epic battles.” But he also referred to her “deep, generous and compassionate spirit,” and noted, “there’s a large hole in the universe where she used to stand.”

Eileen was easy to anger, but not long to stay mad and quick to forgive. Her first husband, Rodney Sutton, played a key role in the service as one of four people chosen to offer memories of Eileen.

“She stared death in the face, flipped it the bird, and said it won’t take my life while I’m still alive,” he said before embracing Schatz.

Joe Newberry, who hit the road at 3:30 a.m. Monday to attend, wrapped up the music for the indoor portion of the ceremony. “Eileen was a sermon lived,” he said, noting he would play an old song that Eileen wanted at the service. Everyone knew an old hymn was coming, right up to the point that he started singing “Slow down, you move too fast,” from Paul Simon’s 59th Street Bridge Song, often called Feelin’ Groovy.

Then the casket was wheeled to the hearse for the short trip to the cemetery out back. In a scene that was part New Orleans jazz sendoff, part camp and 100 percent Eileen, about a dozen musicians – including one playing upright bass on a wheel – followed close behind, with mourners trailing on foot.

Eileen’s resting place is in a quiet glen, along the woods. Schatz and dancers from her Footworks Percussive Dance Ensemble, clogged around her grave, before and after the simple pine box with a cross carved on top was lowered into the ground.

There was more music. Then, one by one, mourners stepped forward, grabbed a shovel and tossed dirt on top of the casket. Off to one side, a young baby with orange spiky hair babbled. On the other, an infant bird that could walk but not yet fly, chirped for its mother.

Eileen Carson Schatz’s worn out body was in the ground, but her spirit, her light, and her joy, were still present.

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About the Author

David Morris

David Morris, an award-winning songwriter and journalist, has written for Bluegrass Today since its inception. He joined its predecessor, The Bluegrass Blog, in 2010. His 40-year career in journalism included more than 13 years with The Associated Press, a stint as chief White House correspondent for Bloomberg News, and several top editing jobs in Washington, D.C. He is a life member of IBMA and the DC Bluegrass Union. He and co-writers won the bluegrass category in the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at MerleFest in 2015.