Tomb It May Concern
How can you secure a plot in the tranquil and tony Texas State Cemetery? Hint: You’d better start padding your résumé.
Are a lot of famous Texans buried at the state cemetery?
Well, some. Since the grounds were established on the east side of Austin, in 1851, the eighteen-acre site has become the final resting place mostly for Confederate veterans—who account for 1,813 of the 3,500 or so people buried there—and a host of state officials, a few famous (Stephen F. Austin, governors “Ma” and “Pa” Ferguson, Senator Ralph Yarborough), though most obscure. But in the near future, expect to see more big-name nonpoliticos in the mix.
Why is that?
For starters, the rules have recently changed. During the cemetery’s first 146 years, eligibility was granted only to Civil War vets, elected state officials, members of a state commission who had served at least six years, and spouses of all of the above. You could also get in through a governor’s proclamation or legislative decree (as did writers J. Frank Dobie and Fred Gipson). But in 1997 the Legislature kicked the eligibility door wide open, creating the three-member Texas State Cemetery Committee, which can review applications from people who don’t qualify for standard eligibility but think they have made a “significant contribution to Texas history and culture.”
What else has changed?
The same year that the rules changed marked the completion of a $4.7 million state cemetery restoration and enhancement project directed by then–lieutenant governor Bob Bullock. The project spruced up the landscaping, created a new visitors center and a memorial plaza—and jacked up demand for cemetery real estate.
So more people are applying for plots?
Exactly. An increasing number of state legislators are reserving grave sites. Just as significant, cemetery superintendent Harry Bradley estimates that he receives a dozen or so applications every month from people applying for spots under the new “significant contribution” criterion. So far, 87 of them have been approved.
U.S. Secretary of Commerce Donald Evans, country singer Larry Gatlin, author Stephen Harrigan, Longhorns coach Darrell Royal, Nobel Prize–winning physicist Steven Weinberg, and Willie “El Diablo” Wells, a legendary Negro League baseball player and National Baseball Hall of Famer who was reinterred at the state cemetery last year (friends and family can apply for a loved one’s entry posthumously). You can view the whole committee-approved list at cemetery.state.tx.us.
Who serves on the selection committee?
The governor, the lieutenant governor, and the Speaker of the House each nominate a member of the committee—though the governor must sign off on all of them (and given how famously those three are getting along, can one expect a Dewhurst or Craddick pick to be rubber-stamped by Perry?).
How does the committee decide who gets in?
Members review the applications, which are typically supplemented by letters of recommendation from various state bigwigs, articles touting the person’s achievements, lists of awards received, and any other documentation designed to make a strong “significant contribution” argument. The committee then discusses and votes on each case at its regularly scheduled meetings.
So I’m not currently and never have been a state official, I’m not the spouse of one, and I haven’t exactly contributed anything significant to the state. Oh, and I’m a Yankee. Do I have any hope for a plot?
Unlikely—though the process isn’t completely rigid or coldhearted. There was the case of Viola Barnes, for example, who lived and worked on the grounds from 1912 until 1950 with her father, the cemetery caretaker. She was granted a plot by George W. Bush when he was governor. And last year the remains of an unknown French sailor discovered in a seventeenth-century shipwreck in Matagorda Bay were approved for burial. That’s right: a Frenchman. If he could find his way into the Texas State Cemetery, anyone has a shot.