IT’S OFTEN SAID THAT GRAVESTONES TELL more about how people lived than how they died. Likewise, the small-town cemeteries of Texas reveal much about their communities. The impressive headstones in the St. Paul Lutheran, Holy Cross Catholic, and City cemeteries of Yorktown, for instance, recall a time when farming provided a good living. In the Hill Country and the coastal plains, grave markers bear memorial messages in English, Spanish, German, Polish, and Czech. A revered monument outside Goliad honors 342 prisoners of war who were massacred by Santa Anna’s army on Palm Sunday in 1836; in its shadow is the small La Bahía Cemetery, where more recent markers note the U.S. military service of the deceased, all Hispanic, through two world wars and Vietnam. In Alsatian cemeteries like the one at St. Dominic’s Church in Old D’Hanis, anonymous stonemasons and blacksmiths created beautiful, traditional designs that reflect a respect for the dead not always apparent today. (The Texas Historical Commission makes an effort to combat vandalism at small-town cemeteries, and theft too; markers apparently command quite a price from antiques dealers.) At the Negro Cemetery in Wortham, a granite marker for blues pioneer Blind Lemon Jefferson—purchased by an online blues chat group in 1997—towers over the other, mostly unmarked graves.
These five cemeteries celebrate Texas’ tangled ethnic, cultural, and historical legacy.
Terlingua Cemetery, Terlingua
EACH YEAR, TWO OR THREE PEOPLE—usually Anglos—are laid to rest in this cemetery in the ghost town west of Big Bend National Park. But before Terlingua became a last outpost for aging hippies and other desert rats, it was populated by Hispanics who worked the area’s mercury mines—unaware, it seems clear, of the dangers of handling the deadly element. About 95 percent of the three hundred to four hundred people buried here are Hispanic men in their thirties, most of whom died between the turn of the century and the end of World War II, when the mines (and the town) closed.
You wouldn’t know it from the markers, though, because most are simple wooden crosses whose engravings have been worn off by the unforgiving Chihuahuan Desert weather. Mounds of dirt or rocks or conical relicaritos (“shrines”) mark the remaining graves, which often have nichos (small shelves on which prayer candles and other mementos are placed). Cacti, mesquite, and low-lying brush encroach on the cemetery, but there is no shade. Although the five members of the Terlingua Foundation board and relatives of the deceased attempt to maintain the grounds, nothing can make this look like anything except a solitary spot on the edge of civilization. Northeast of downtown.
Seminole Indian Scouts Cemetery, Brackettville
MEMBERS OF THE SEMINOLE TRIBE WERE originally either Creek Indians or black slaves (in Creek the word “seminole” means “wild” or “people who live at a distance”). Many were brought from Mexico to Fort Clark during the Indian wars of the 1870’s; Native Americans dubbed them “buffalo soldiers,” and they and their descendants are buried in this immaculate cemetery in Brackettville, the town that grew alongside the fort. Nobody dares guess their number, because often when the cemetery association breaks ground for a new grave, old bones are discovered.
The oldest graves, which sit in the southeast corner of the cemetery, date to 1877, though some of the wooden crosses in this unshaded area are so weather-beaten that they can’t be read. Names like Demdo Factor, Jaunitae Remo, and John Bowlegs reflect mixed heritage. Four Congressional Medal of Honor winners from the Indian wars—Adam Paine (1843—1877), Isaac Payne (1854—1904), Pompey Factor (1849—1928), and John Ward (1848—1911)—are joined by veterans from nearly every U.S. war since. Many of the gravestones are white marble, with a cross outlined at the top, and no information except name, company, rank, and date of birth and death. On Farm Road 3348 five miles south of town.
San Jose Cemetery, Abram
IT MAY NOT BE THE OLDEST OR BIGGEST CEMETERY on the border, but San Jose is surely the brightest and most lavish. Colorful statues of Christ and the Virgen de Guadalupe stand in the shadow of mausoleums. A few tombstones bear engravings of a produce truck or an oil rig or a porcelain portrait of the deceased. The oldest grave is dated 1884, though some Mexican workers were buried here, sometimes four deep, after floods in the 1790’s (in all, three quarters of the 857 people squeezed into the small grounds are Mexican nationals).
Though some graves are marked only by a cross, a mound of dirt or rocks, a cement border, or a miniature brick house, fresh floral displays adorn many of the tombstones, which are typically large and ornate. None is more so than that of Joel Jesus “Joey” Martinez, who was born on November 6, 1979, and died on February 14, 1996. His plot is covered with blue, green, white, and red painted stones, depicting a football field, and is bordered by raised red and black tiles. At one end, next to a glistening black-marble tombstone inscribed with a poem, is his La Joya High School football portrait under glass. (His faded red jersey hangs on the see-through plastic shelter that protects the tombstone.) A coyote—La Joya’s mascot—is engraved on the back of the stone. In front are statues of a coyote and an angel and a hand-carved wooden sign that reads, “Joey’s Law,” referring to a state law passed after Martinez’s death that prohibits border crossings by carloads of kids during school hours (he had cut school to cross the border with his friends and died in a car wreck on his way home). At the other end of the plot, a football, autographed by teammates and held in place by a metal brace, splits the crossbar. Farm Road 492 in the center of town.
Oakwood Cemetery, Jefferson
SOME 15,000 INTERMENTS—many of them in large family plots where the dates span 150 years—spread out from under the water tower in this East Texas town of slightly more than two thousand people. Founded in 1846,