The Texas Story Project.
According to the Texas Historical Commission, there is an estimated 50,000 cemeteries in the state of Texas. Some are isolated and unmarked. To be classified as an historical cemetery, it has to be 50 years or older. Not many people want to think about death let alone visit a cemetery but there is much history to be learned in going to one. Genealogists jokingly refer to their endeavors as "digging up ancestors” and, at some point in research, locating and visiting cemeteries is commonplace. Find A Grave on the internet has helped many to locate departed loved ones. It is definitely not difficult to “socially distance” during the COVID-19 epidemic if one decides to visit a cemetery because there are no crowds there!
Graveyard was once an acceptable and widely used term for a place where loved ones were laid to rest. Had I known how commonplace the word once was, I could have explained to my mother my misunderstanding of using that word when I was a young child. I probably heard the term early in life when television entered our homes and everyone was watching Westerns. People were always dying on those shows and ended up at the graveyard. When I got into genealogy, I smiled when I come across the word graveyard instead of cemetery. Some are still referred to as graveyards in records and many are preceded by a family name. Many graves were family plots on private land or near a church. Later, due to health codes and other reasons, public land was set aside for burials and cemetery became a more acceptable term.
My mother was determined to create literate and socially acceptable children. Proper respectfulness and usage of words played an important role in our upbringing. When my brother and I were kids on the outskirts of San Antonio, we went with our parents to some cemeteries. One of the very first cemeteries I remember going to, though, was Lamar Cemetery on Goose Island not far from Rockport, Texas in the late 1950's. At that time, there was a dirt road that went past it and the cemetery was difficult to spot. We found it by accident and the family had to climb up wooden steps to get over the fence. It was not well maintained, at that particular time, and was weed infested. Still, we saw very old grave sites and some I now know are of historical importance. It's easier to find now and a relative and I went in recent years. Stella Maris Chapel is now located next to the old Lamar Cemetery. My brother and I had preconceived notions about cemeteries because we were so influenced by TV in the 1950’s. One of us mentioned the word graveyard that day and Mom proceeded to set us straight on how we should never use that word. Graveyard was simply not acceptable nomenclature used in polite company. Other etiquette rules were soon to follow! For one thing, we were supposed to be very quiet in the cemetery...sort of like being in a library I assumed. We were told that we must pay attention to where we stepped. Heaven forbid one should accidentally step on a grave! Sort of like "step on a crack you break your mother's back" I probably thought as a kid. I wondered in later years why there couldn't be more sidewalks or stepping stones to clearly mark graves so you could avoid feelings of guilt or jumping like a snake was at your feet if you accidentally made a grave mistake...pun intended. When I was much older, I discovered it's not a good idea either to wear high heeled shoes to a graveside service especially after a heavy rain.
As a teenager, I accompanied my mother to an old Jewish cemetery in San Antonio. Through my very young eyes, I thought Agudas Achim Cemetery to be rather spooky and ancient looking. It's located in the San Antonio City Cemeteries Historic District. From pictures I have seen today, it is really quite beautiful…not spooky at all. It had become surrounded by a rather rundown and unsavory neighborhood in those years and I thought the area might be dangerous. Mother explained to me that the people who lived nearby would never ever bother anything in those cemeteries. Apparently they had too much respect for the dead along with a few unfounded fears and superstitions. So I believed, at least then, that we were safe and so were flowers that people brought to the graves. My knowledgeable mother gave me valuable insight into the notion that there are those who felt that cemeteries could be shrouded in mystery as well as being a place to honor the dead.
My family believed visiting "departed" relatives was important. Going with my parents to various cemeteries in Texas to visit graves of relatives was one thing but, as an adult, I made a rule to never go alone for safety reasons and my belief that maybe one should not be alone with ones' grief and thoughts. As a young woman, I learned of a childhood friend who had taken her own life. I could not believe this happened and could not fathom the reasons why. I wanted to go alone to the cemetery to see for myself something I could not believe. I felt that I might not find anyone who had the time or inclination to go with me. So, I set off across Houston to visit the cemetery where I was told she was buried. Not a living soul was there on a weekday. A gentleman in the office told me exactly where to find my friend's grave. I stood looking at the headstone for several minutes but then felt a presence standing nearby. I looked and was somewhat relieved to see the man from the office. I know it was an act of kindness or a curiosity on his part to walk over to me but I felt startled, alone, sad, vulnerable, and just wanted to leave immediately. As I was driving away, I passed in front of the funeral home where a hearse was parked with the driver behind the wheel. He turned to me as our vehicles passed and I felt a strange uneasiness as our eyes met for a brief moment. A sudden chill passed through my entire body. My thoughts were ridiculous I told myself but, at the moment I saw that hearse and saw the stare from the driver, I prayed that God would not take one of my family members. Some would say that I had experienced a premonition, as two weeks later my nephew died in a tragic accident. Intellectually I knew I had not been sent a sign but the encounter in that cemetery has stayed with me.
While visiting Austin on a business trip with my husband years ago, we stayed at a hotel in walking distance of the state cemetery. This had not been planned, but we could not book a room in another hotel that weekend. So, I was stuck for part of a day in an inconvenient location and then thought that I would walk over to the office of Parks and Wildlife and maybe a computer could be found that could tell me the place where an aunt was buried in Austin. The office was closed. Out of curiosity and noticing a few graves nearby, I was interested in seeing where so many early settlers and prominent people of Texas had been buried. I had walked about a block into the cemetery when I stopped cold in my tracks. Reluctantly I knew it was probably best to return to the front gates. I felt no fear of spirits that might be out and about, although I did notice an ancient crypt that looked like something out of a horror movie. Rather, I felt angrily compelled to leave because of safety reasons. For all I knew there could be a drugged crazed lunatic lurking about or someone waiting to rob me. I had already read of one case of someone's wallet being stolen out of a car in a cemetery. Of course I came to realize that my aunt would not be buried in this area of town and I proceeded to pass by a place where headstones were manufactured. I inquired in the office if I could find the cemetery where she was buried and someone went to a computer and found what I needed to know. I had never known this woman and had only seen pictures of a beautiful little girl who I had been named after and who had died at a young age. I knew that all of her other family members were buried elsewhere in the state and that made me feel sad that she was alone. Through my work in genealogy I already knew the dates of her birth, death, and circumstances. I found this all on my own, as my father and my mother never talked about her. While my youngest son was attending UT, he drove me to Memorial Park Cemetery and I was able to pay my respects to a woman I never got a chance to know but whose name was bestowed to me—a matter of family history with a picture of the headstone taken by my son.
Since that time, after more extensive genealogy research, I found out where my paternal great great grandparents were buried along with their son who had been a sheriff and died in the line of duty in 1887...killed by a “desperado” in Milam County according to newspaper accounts. That cemetery was located in Milam County. It was a long drive from Cypress, Texas and I stopped first in Buckholts where my grandfather and other relatives had once lived. The cemetery had a name and was not referred to as a graveyard. Corinth Cemetery (1880). I got out and found the family members, read the headstones, and started taking pictures as quickly as possible. I had forgotten what I had vowed never to do and that was never to go alone to a cemetery. It was just me and cattle in nearby fields and complete silence...not too smart! Maybe on a weekend it would have been different. It's doubtful my cell phone would have helped if I had been in any danger which turned out to be happily not the case. I left quickly and received by mail much better pictures from a fellow researcher who was contributing to a book along with others on our family. That was the last time I ever went to a cemetery alone.
I made rules for myself when the time comes to visit a cemetery for genealogy or for other reasons I’d rather not think about. If I take a camera, I will be sure that no one nearby will be in any way disturbed by my actions. I will be as respectful as my mother taught me to be. I would then have pictures of the headstones that will, hopefully, have words that have not disappeared due to the passing of time or neglect. I will remember to be quiet and try not to accidentally step on a grave. I will certainly be wearing sensible shoes and I won't be alone. I will try not to think about superstitions concerning the dead and cemeteries. I will try to banish thoughts of my own mortality and contemplate more on the people who went before me and hope that they had lived mostly good and worthwhile lives even though there were some rascals among them. I want to see where they were all laid to rest in what were once called graveyards.
Sherrill Pool Elizondo graduated from Southwest Texas State University (now Texas State) with a degree in English and Education. She is a sixth generation Texan and interested in genealogy. She’s been an aspiring writer for over 40 years and is the proud parent of three sons and has six talented and remarkable grandchildren who now all reside in the state of Texas. She has a Texas First Families certificate and is working on her DRT membership. Some of her stories can be seen online at Boomer Cafe, 70 Candles, Grand Magazine, and Texas Escapes. Texas Escapes published her account of the time she spent as a United States Pavilion guide during Hemisfair’68 in San Antonio. She was born and raised in San Antonio and has lived most of her adult life in the Houston area and now enjoys another home in Rockport, Texas.
Posted June 19, 2020