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.

October 1999By Comments

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. If you want to make a rubbing, ask the caretaker for permission; some places forbid it. Barring prohibitions, use butcher paper and an artist’s charcoal pencil. Never use a crayon or a felt-tip marker, which can permanently mar the porous, almost sugary surface of old stone. Half the fun of graving is trying to decipher the flowery script through the lichen and discolorations splotching the old marble, but if you’re really stumped, Gerron Hite of the Texas Historical Commission suggests squirting on plain old water to help highlight engravings. (I used to use shaving cream and a squeegee, but I now know that was a grave error.)

After a few cemetery visits, you’ll begin to notice certain traditions and standard appurtenances. In the South, graves nearly always face east, the direction of Jerusalem—presumably so the inhabitants can meet Jesus face to face when He returns. Older graveyards may have wide arched entryways called lych-gates, which sounds fetchingly Victorian until you learn that “lych” means “corpse.” Occasionally you’ll spot a grave house, a sort of porte cochere permanently sheltering the one at rest. Another old-timey touch is the brick-size footstone, usually initialed and frequently overgrown; I once stubbed a toe on a nearly hidden one that subsequently proved to read “O.W.” Most good-sized historical cemeteries are home to military veterans, and one of my favorite bits of grave lore is the reason Confederates’ tombstones are pointed: so Yankees can’t sit on them. In the country, cemeteries often include a picnic area, but urban cemeteries are less friendly—I have seen beer cans, syringes, and worse littering the grounds—so keep your guard up; you want to visit the dead, not join them.

Below is a list of visit-worthy burial grounds. Pick one near you, and ceme-tarry awhile.

Austin: The Texas State Cemetery (909 Navasota) is full of luminaries such as Stephen F. Austin, Bigfoot Wallace, Ma and Pa Ferguson, and Barbara Jordan. The most riveting grave is that of Confederate general Albert Sidney Johnston; it’s topped with a life-size marble statue of his recumbent corpse (by sculptor Elisabet Ney), surrounded by a spiked fence, and covered with an ornate Gothic metal roof. Another worthy Austin destination—final or temporary—is moss-draped Oakwood (1601 Navasota), where the residents include murderous marshal Ben Thompson and Alamo heroine Susanna Dickinson.

Dallas: Greenwood Cemetery (3020 Oak Grove) has such a classic combination of obelisks and oaks, headstones and hedges that the producers of Walker, Texas Ranger film funeral scenes there. At Hillcrest Memorial Park (7405 Northwest Highway, between Hillcrest and Boedeker), you can visit Mickey Mantle, Greer Garson, and H. L. Hunt and let your kids feed the koi in the front pond. More tattily charming is Oakland (3900 block of Malcolm X Avenue), where tilting markers and cracked statues nestle in thick foliage. El Paso: Concordia Cemetery (near Yandell and Stevens, north of I-10; take the Copia exit), a huge, untended desert graveyard, is most famous as the resting place of John Wesley Hardin. Descendants once tried to relocate the gunslinger’s remains; to foil another such attempt and prevent random vandalism, the city covered the grave with concrete. The many Hispanic plots feature homey touches like plastic Virgins of Guadalupe. There are also sections devoted to Jewish settlers and Chinese railroad workers.

Fredericksburg: Der Stadt Friedhof (North Lee and Travis) offers wonderful old German graves, such as that of pioneer Heinrich Grobe, whose stone is marked “ermordet von den Indianern” (murdered by the Indians).

Houston: Ritzy Glenwood (2525 Washington) is famous for lush landscaping and celebrity residents such as Howard Hughes. Also check out folk-arty Hollywood Cemetery in the Heights (3506 North Main), a funky old repository of charming Hispanic graves, and adjacent Holy Cross (3502 North Main), with its awesome mausoleum. Adath Yeshurun (3500 Allen Parkway) is a Jewish cemetery full of stunning memorials. The biggest, however, is Forest Park Lawndale (6900 Lawndale), where more than 125,000 Texans, including bluesman Lightnin’ Hopkins, are at rest. Look for the Tiffany windows on the crypts of the Proctor and Raford families.

Paris: Among the 45,000 graves at Evergreen Cemetery (560 Evergreen, near Church and Jefferson) is that of Willet Babcock, eye-catchingly adorned with a twelve-foot statue of Jesus; a cowboy boot peeks out from underneath His robes.

Scottsville: This bitsy little burg seven miles east of Marshall (on FM 1998) has some big ol’ statues in its 158-year-old burial ground, including a 25-foot-tall Johnny Reb and a giant grief-stricken angel atop a child’s tomb that bears the inscription “If tears could have saved you, thou would not have died.”

Tascosa: This once-riotous settlement is now practically a ghost town, and its Boot Hill (just off U.S. 385, northwest of Amarillo) is full of showdown losers and other incautious cowpokes. A notable headstone is that of Frenchy McCormick, a longtime dance-hall queen.

For more information about Texas grave sites, contact the Texas Historical Commission at www.thc.state.tx.us; Save Texas Cemeteries, Inc., at www.members.aol.com/savegrave (2005-07-21 update: www.members.aol.com/savegrave is no longer active); or www.findagrave.com.

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