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,