Dead Beat

Texas’ peaceful old cemeteries are the final resting place of everyone from Buddy Holly to Howard Hughes. What’s their attraction? Remains to be seen.

I DIG GRAVES; DO YOU? More and more people are discovering the fun of exploring old and historic cemeteries. I call this “graving,” though some aficionados prefer the term “grave crawling,” a phrase that brings to mind the immortal childhood lyric “The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out …” If that mental image makes you squirm, you’re not alone; thanatophobia—a highfalutin word meaning the fear of death and its trappings—is deeply buried in the American psyche. But believe it or not, going graving is apt to cure you. Tree-shaded and admission-free, cemeteries are surprisingly inviting, and the residents never complain about uninvited guests. Add the impact of tombstone sentiments, and you’ll find that a graving expedition leaves you at once touched by the past and grateful for the present.

And there are plenty of Texas burial sites to visit: as many as 50,000, according to Save Texas Cemeteries, a preservationists’ group. In the country, off little two-lane or dirt roads, you’ll spot the occasional tiny private graveyard of the variety called “scraped earth,” left bare to set it apart from the surrounding wilderness. Naturally, in urban areas, the plots thicken: Inner-city necropolises, green and lush, bristle with ornate obelisks and massive mausoleums. Both celebrities and regular folks populate all kinds of burial grounds across the state: Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish; African American, Mexican American, German, Czech, and more. So here lies a guide to Texas graving—read on to experience the esprit de corpse.

I attribute my lifelong fondness for graving to having a birthday near Halloween, which prompted me to develop an early appreciation of spooky things. (I admit that back then I thought the word was “cementery,” because all the markers appeared to be made of concrete.) Later on, my high school friends and I occasionally congregated in a local graveyard in the dead of night, for two reasons: It was a safe place to drink beer, and the creepy setting gave us plenty of excuses to snuggle up to our sweeties (one crypt had an obligingly creaky door).

But the true appeal of graving is carved in stone. The names on the worn markers are, by our modern standards, charmingly archaic: Enoch, Dovie, Telemachus, Hepzibah. Equally engaging are graven messages, typically permanent valentines (“Farewell, darling”) and expressions of faith (“Asleep in the arms of Jesus”). Naturally, the wealthier and more powerful the decedent, the grander the epitaph: Governor Pat Neff, who lies in Waco’s Oakwood Cemetery, opted for “I have worked and wrought as best I could to make Texas a better place in which to live.” Yesterday’s bereaved were especially fond of treacly verse; consider “She took the cup of life to sip/For bitter it was to drain/She meekly took it from her lips/And went to sleep again.” The most heartbreaking are children’s tombstones, frequently adorned with little lambs and piercing commemorations (“Budded on earth to bloom in heaven”). Some cemeteries bear row upon row of headstones with the same year of death, indicating a disaster or epidemic; Galveston’s New City Cemetery, for instance, was once colloquially known as the Fever Yard. Not all memorials are touching or sad; a Montgomery obelisk marking the final resting place of the Reverend Thomas Chilton declares, “Reader, pause: You too must die. Prepare to meet thy God.” Fun guy, the Reverend Tom.

Besides words, many a symbol graces these marble memorials. Religious images predominate: Bibles, doves, Stars of David. Roses, lilies, and weeping willows bloom in profusion. Some markers are inset with photographs of the loved ones in their prime, printed on porcelain medallions; others bear personalized designs—a Corvette, a derrick, a dog, a royal flush. My favorite motif is the gates of heaven, which, so legend has it, swing inward for an adult ascending but open outward for a child, so the angels can descend to lead him home.

Tributes to the dead don’t have to be permanent. Often visitors bedeck graves with little nonfloral gifts and offerings. I’ve seen dice, Mardi Gras beads, toy cars, kitchen utensils, whiskey bottles, and a weathered rubber duck. A curious decoration, common on both African American and Anglo graves, is the seashell, its meaning obscured in Southern folklore; maybe it represented, for onetime slaves, their ocean crossing as well as crossing over. I find Mexican American graveyards especially attractive, perhaps because Hispanics, unlike Anglos, have long incorporated death into life. November 2, for example, the Day of the Dead, is major party time. In their burial grounds you’ll spot colorful homemade markers inlaid with mosaics and bedecked with rosaries, candles, and religious figurines.

The plots of private citizens are appealing enough, but plenty of celebrity grave sites also dot Texas. Once I stopped in the City of Lubbock Cemetery to pay homage to the town’s greatest musician; as I rolled down the window to query a caretaker, before I could even speak, he said, “Buddy Holly?” and recited directions by rote. If you’re in Dallas’ Crown Hill Memorial Park Cemetery, you’ll appreciate the irony of outlaw Bonnie Parker’s epitaph: “As the flowers are all made sweeter by the sunshine and the dew/ So this old world is made brighter by the lives of folks like you.” And in the Wortham Negro Cemetery near Corsicana, the headstone of blues singer Blind Lemon Jefferson bears a lyric from one of his best-known songs: “Lord, it’s one kind favor I’ll ask of you. See that my grave is kept clean.” (The Lord is still coming through for you, Mr. Jefferson.)

Alas, too many graves aren’t being kept clean but picked clean. Cemetery theft has reached monumental proportions because of the increasing popularity of antique statuary as yard art. Last year thieves ( R.I.P.-off artists?) apparently used a forklift to dislodge various adornments from the sprawling Old San Antonio City Cemeteries Historic District. This brings us to the first rule of graving, which is, of course, don’t mess anything up, much less take anything away. Cemetery etiquette also requires you to respectfully skirt graves and to right tumped-over vases.

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