Death and Texas

Here’s another one of life’s certainties: The controversy over who gets buried at the state cemetery just won’t die.

This is our Texas family plot,” said governor George W. Bush at the rededication ceremony for the Texas State Cemetery in Austin. It was a glorious March day, and invited guests gathered under a big tent, strolled around to pay their respects to departed friends and colleagues, and gazed at the transformation of the 146-year-old graveyard into a tranquil showplace with a visitors center, cascading ponds, a columbarium, and a memorial plaza.

The $4.7 million, two-and-a-half-year project had been initiated at the urging of Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock and completed with help from a variety of sources: State agencies pitched in and so did prison inmates and schoolchildren—the prisoners cleaned Confederate gravestones and the students researched the biographies of the distinguished dead.

On that day there was little hint that aspects of the renovation had been controversial. But in any family there are tiffs and tensions, and the cemetery project had to live through—so to speak—its share of dustups. “I never knew a cemetery could be so political,” says a member of the renovation team who’d prefer not to be named because of, well, politics. “Dealing with death and politics was quite a challenge,” agrees John Grable of Lake-Flato Architects, the San Antonio firm in charge of the project’s design. Lake-Flato has taken some heat for creating the starkly dramatic Plaza de los Recuerdos, the circular stone plaza at the south end of the cemetery, near Seventh Street, that inspired the nickname Stonehenge on Seventh. During the selection of names to be engraved on the huge stones, old Alamo resentments and the voice of Janis Joplin rose up like ghosts. Even the choice of grass—buffalo versus Saint Augustine—was the subject of a minor tussle, with buffalo the eventual winner.

It makes sense, really, that politics should come into play at the sixteen-acre cemetery, which is located in a mostly black neighborhood east of the Capitol: It is the final resting place of 1,860 Confederate and Republic of Texas veterans, eleven governors, and hundreds of judges, legislators, and the like. Only elected state officials or members of state commissions with at least twelve years tenure (and their spouses) are eligible to be buried in the cemetery, although exceptions can be made by governor’s proclamation or legislative decree, as in the cases of writer J. Frank Dobie and historian Walter Prescott Webb. (A bill introduced in the Legislature this session by Senator Gonzalo Barrientos of Austin would broaden the admission requirements.) Such exclusivity makes the cemetery some of the hottest real estate in town—and according to its superintendent, Harry Bradley, there has been even greater interest in reserving plots since the renovation was announced. Already the toniest section of the cemetery, Republic Hill, which is anchored at the top by the tomb of Stephen F. Austin, is booked solid.

Getting into the cemetery is sort of like getting into a good suburban subdivision: Prospective residents come by to browse and check out what’s available, although choices are limited—each section must be filled before another one opens. No one can be bumped from a plot, though spaces open up unexpectedly, as was the case when the wife of a prominent politician filed for divorce and then made a point of canceling her reservation. Some prospective residents, like former legislator and judge L. DeWitt Hale, have not only reserved their plots but have already had their tombstones carved—except, of course, for the final date. “I wanted to make sure they wouldn’t add anything to it after I was gone,” he says. Plots are even being reserved by young politicians like State Representative Dawnna Dukes of Austin: As it now stands, Dukes will be the second African American female elected official to be buried in the cemetery (Barbara Jordan was buried there last year, next to Confederate brigadier general Benjamin McCulloch).

The state cemetery wasn’t always such a desirable final destination. It underwent its first face lift back in 1936 for the Texas independence centennial, when the bodies of a number of famous Texans, including governors James Pinckney Henderson and Peter Hansborough Bell, were brought from elsewhere and reinterred. At the time, the director of the renovation, Louis Kemp, had one of the roads in the cemetery declared a highway—a fortuitous move for the current cemetery renovators, who were able to apply for federal funds through the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, which is reserved for improvements to highways.

By 1994, when the renovation project was begun at Bullock’s instigation, the cemetery was looking rather forlorn. As he explained at the dedication ceremony in March, “I was out here on many occasions when I left feeling a little incomplete.” The first part of the project to be completed was a 150-foot flagpole; Bullock insisted upon having flags that could be seen from Interstate 35, if not all the way from San Antonio. The twenty- by forty-foot flags, which must be replaced frequently because of heavy winds, are sewn by inmates

More Texas Monthly

Loading, please wait...